July 30th, 2013

Learn to love people more than religious work

by Bob Roberts Jr.


I just returned from a two week trip to Vietnam.  It was like going home.  I go usually once a year – at least – but because of my hip replacement and a crazy schedule it’s been a couple of years since I’ve been.  I wasn’t missed.  Why?  Because the work NorthWood Church and Glocal Ventures does there is not driven by me – but by hundreds of everyday people who use their jobs and skills to go back and forth and serve the city of Hanoi and also up in the mountains of Lao Cai near the Chinese border.

Years ago, our church decided instead of beeboping the world – let’s focus on one spot.  What if we focused our money, volunteers, time, efforts on a single city and not just a little smattering everywhere?  It was the best decision we ever made.  What about those other nations?  In the US, Northwood starts churches and we help position them to work in “non-traditional” places most churches would never go.  A former helicopter pilot I led to faith in Jesus wanted us to focus on North Vietnam – I sure didn’t.  My dad had buried too many soldiers.  It was Communist country.  There were a thousand cultural, theological, historical, social reasons to work anywhere but there.  But, God was there already and he wanted us there beside him loving the Vietnamese.  It forced me out of my traditional boundaries of acceptance and engagement.  Why?

First, I had to learn to love the people more than religious work.  That was hard for me – I was raised to be a missionary and spread the gospel.  In those early days, I didn’t understand the difference between the Gospel of the Kingdom and the Gospel of Religion.  People were commodities to be religiously processed into my system – not individuals with God given cultures, histories, races, tribes – I knew and STILL know so little.  I’m very grateful for JD Greear’s new book, “Stop asking Jesus into your heart” – I didn’t understand that in my early days.

Second, I had to learn to see those that I differed with religiously and politically not as enemies or opponents but as friends.  That meant I had to stop my “preaching” and learn “listening” and building relationships.  This was my first experience, if not lesson, on what happens when you start loving people your tribe does not – it isn’t easy.  You become their friend, you expect your own tribe will be excited about the “breakthrough” – but often they aren’t.  After all Jesus hung out with the rejects of his day and commanded us to fulfill the Great Commission – right?  Though Jesus said to love and live by faith – you find out real quickly neither of those qualities are necessarily present in “religious” work.  One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that we want to share Jesus without relationship.  That may be good for getting a “religious” decision, but not good for the long-term Gospel in a country.  In one of my meetings this last week I was with a top leader in Vietnam that I admire so much.  He’s been in my home, my church, and around my family a lot.  In his own way, this man loves God.  Over a meal he began to tell me how God has been speaking to him – he can sense God’s presence and is hearing God’s voice and is serving God even though he wouldn’t consider himself a Christian.  What’s funny is in my pervious life I would have blown all that off.  Not anymore – the world is full of Cornelius’ we just don’t recognize the fact that God can speak without using our words or our religion!

Third, it forced me to understand a culture totally opposite to my own.  I’ve been to the Middle-East and Africa and countries on 5 continents – I don’t think there is a culture anymore opposite my own than Vietnam.  That isn’t bad – it’s awesome!  To be able to see the world through the eyes of someone else not like you, can help you see some of your own blind spots and some of your wrong thinking.  There is no doubt about it, Vietnam has changed me more than I have changed Vietnam – and – as strange as this may sound to some, I see God all over Vietnam at work, loving the people, blessing the city, and brining faith, hope, and love.  Vietnam has its issues, I don’t see it as a panacea – but neither is it this “evil” place I grew up thinking it was, not more than we are here in the US.

Fourth, I’ve found that relationships give permission.  There are so many people that say “you can’t do that in Vietnam” – what we do.  It simply isn’t true.  It’s funny, much of our work done there is now instigated by leaders in the society, be they business or government.  I remember when we entered our new worship center in Keller, we had a group pray over the building the night before the worship service.  I was praying up near the top of the room in the back when I began to pray for Vietnam and that as we move into this new “big” room that we will stay true to our mission to love our city, state, country, and world.  To my shock, on the back of the seat in front of me was embossed “made in Vietnam!”  The very chairs in our worship center had been made in Vietnam and shipped to the US.  I thought this is simply incredible.  It’s also true.  Vietnam showed Northwood the world, and made it what she is by releasing her people into the domains of society at home and abroad – glocally!

Fifth, Vietnam forced me to think theologically and philosophically in ways I’d never thought before.  It’s one thing to learn theology or philosophy in a classroom – it’s another to be confronted by questions from real live people, from that perspective.  It made me think deeply about what I believe and why?  In a sense, the world (Vietnam) discipled me.

When I talk and give lectures some people question, are suspect how can this be – others get excited.  I remember explaining all this to a group of young pastors and they took really good notes.  They all talked about how fascinating it was and how this was the future – they got it – or thought they did.  When I took them to Vietnam – seeing the people, the work, the relationships really solidified it for them.  Several said, “I heard all this stuff and believed what you taught us – but I didn’t really get what you meant until I saw all this.”  Most of those guys are now pastors of churches in the US Northwood helped start, working in other parts of the world just like Vietnam.

The world is open like never before – and yet, we are closed in the West in our perspective, relationships, like never before.  I can’t take everyone with me around the world – so I’ve brought my friends from around the world to the US for the Global Faith Forum.  The Vietnamese diplomats, businessmen, educators will all be there along with secular atheist Europeans (that are my friends), along with Middle-Eastern Muslims (that are my friends), along with Jews form Israel and the U.S. (that are my friends), along with a couple of pastors (that are my friends).  President’s, Royalty, clerics, businessmen, writers, everyday people, young and old, every race – will all be there.  What good is it to want to bless the world with the love of Jesus if we know nothing about the world or tons about our religion?

At this point in time, there is simply nothing else like this in the US or world – not where evangelicals gather to connect globally with people of different perspectives.  Do you want to engage the world?  Do you want to be effective?  You simply can’t miss thewww.globalfaithforum.com