My parents didn’t raise me to be a sectarian. I don’t know where I got it from. I was born and raised in the Church of Christ, which I’m sure had something to do with it—though most churches I interacted with weren’t the, “We are the only ones going to heaven” kind.
I didn’t know, back in those days, what to do with people of other tribes. What to do with all these Presbyterians, Baptists, Calvary Chapelers, Methodists, and the like? They preached some mighty fine sermons, seemed like nice people and wrote some great music. But, that didn’t make them right.
I know for many readers of this blog, you’ll be puzzled by this struggle. I’m puzzled by it as well… in hindsight. The question I was working through then was this: how important is doctrinal agreement for fellowship? One can’t say it doesn’t matter at all. Well then, what exactly matters enough to view oneself as “on another team”—or to move other Christians from Brother and Sister to cousins twice removed?
I was still working through this a bit back in the 1990s, when God saw fit to send me to Bangkok, Thailand for the summer on a mission trip. The task: help the Thai people practice their English reading and discussing the Gospel of Luke. It was a transforming experience.
Thailand’s people are incredibly friendly and gracious. But, sin has a firm grip on Bangkok–the child prostitution capital of the world. On our way from the airport the cab drove us through a district where we witnessed children posed in windows like mannequins with numbers hanging around their necks like cattle. We were notified American businessmen were the number one suitors for such Satanic behavior. To this day, that image haunts and nauseates me and motivates me to want to help children in poverty.
If that weren’t enough, it was my first real exposure to Buddhism. Every store, every house, every restaurant had a Buddha inside. I was awakened by monk chants from a nearby monastery. It might have been a cultural experience except that we stayed in a student center that housed more than a dozen college students who had been disowned by their Buddhist parents for believing in Jesus. They had nowhere to go but that student center.
That summer I was one of seven guys sharing one bedroom. Six of us had been disowned. I however had a loving family from top to bottom supporting my faith. We would pray nightly for numerous Christians they knew personally who were suffering in Cambodian or Burmese prisons for their faith.
This was no small game I was in.
The Buddhas, the chants, the skepticism of those with whom I studied, the prayers that reminded me of the very real persecution of the saints, the faithfulness of the little Thai church we worshiped with on Sundays, the witness of the prisoners, the rampant prostitution, the witness of the college students at the Ramkhamhaeng Student Center across the corner from a university of more than 300,000 students—all of this let me know there is very much a spiritual war on.
It finally landed the day we went to a Buddhist temple to see the world’s largest solid gold statue of any kind at Wat Traimit. What was it? It was a of Buddha, of course. It stood nearly ten feet tall and weighed roughly six tons. Hundreds upon hundreds of worshipers bowed down to this statue made of solid gold. We were the only ones not bowing among hundreds worshiping an enormous, solid-gold idol. We felt so out of place. It didn’t feel like a cultural experience—it felt like we were all alone among hundreds of millions who worshiped Buddha. I took the opportunity to pray—for my readers, for the lost, for the Christians suffering in prison, for the Gospel to be shared to the ends of the earth.
Just then across the temple, I spotted a small group of Americans—maybe four. One of them had across her chest, “Baptist Student Union.” I’d never been so glad to see a Baptist in all my life 🙂
…and I haven’t furrowed my brow at a Baptist since.
It was so obvious at that moment how misguided I’d been. The words of Jesus still ring true where, “Those who are not against us are for us” (Mark 9:40).
Leadership lesson: God’s up to something a lot bigger than just us or our tribe. Let’s not despair when things don’t go well for us or when another church is killing it for the Kingdom. Let’s give thanks that the Kingdom is still on the move—in Burmese prisons, in American churches, soup kitchens, and even the Baptist Student Union (I’m totally kidding).
Don’t waste any more time or energy fighting or competing with those who aren’t against us. Let’s fight together instead.