From the Outside In:  Baptist Mission Comes Full Circle

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“You don’t belong here.”  It’s a message heard by marginalized people across the ages in one way or another.  This time it was the British East India Company sending the message to American Baptist missionaries Adoniram and Ann Judson who arrived in India shortly around the outbreak of the War of 1812.  Not to be deterred, the Judsons made their way to Burma where it took 3 years just to learn the language. But Adoniram was a linguist, and he soon had written a grammar of the language and began translating parts of the Bible into Burmese.  He tried to assimilate into the culture, but soon realized that he was destined to always be seen as an outsider. He stayed the course, even though it took 12 years to make 18 converts. Finally, with the help of a donated printing press and a fresh translation of the Gospel of Matthew, a congregation began to form, and "So was born the church in Rangoon–logger and fisherman, the poor and the rich, men and women. One traveled the whole path to Christ in three days; another took two years. But once they had decided for Christ they were his for all time" (chronicler Maung Shwe Wa).

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From 1824-1826, Burma went to war with Britain, Ann died, and Adoniram found himself in and out of prison.  But he found a surprising ally in a converted outcast and murderer named Ko Tha Byu of the Karen people who quickly spread the Gospel to jungle tribes whose oral tradition contained stories much like those of the Old Testament.  In 1835 Judson finished his translation of the entire Bible into Burmese and married fellow missionary Sarah Boardman. By the time of his death at the end of his 37 year career as a missionary overseas, Judson’s initial goal of 100 members had bloomed into a thriving network of 100 churches with over 8,000 members.  As a result, modern-day Myanmar now has the third largest number of Baptists worldwide with “1.6 million Baptists in more than 4,700 churches in a country that is an estimated 90 percent Buddhist and 4 percent Christian” (Baptist News Global).  

The modern military government in the region has not allowed missionaries since 1967, and recently the Karen people have fallen under persecution in Burma, now Myanmar, and had to flee as refugees because their home country “never claimed the Karen, nor did bordering Thailand, which maintained them in refugee camps they used as a military buffer zone. The Karen were stateless persons.”  Those who made their way to the U.S. have partnered with numerous CBF churches across the country, and as they have learned about American culture, we could learn a thing or two from their “culture of evangelism” in which everything about their faith is taken very seriously.  Christians from across the world are making their way to America for a variety of reasons, and it would seem that we have a lot to learn from them.

Some groups across Asia and South America are now sending missionaries to the US.  The Gospel has come full circle.  It seems as if we have become to the new mission field, and the places to where we used to send missionaries are now preaching the Gospel to us.  The reasons for this role reversal are incredibly complex, but people like Rob Sellers have theorized that “A lot of people in the West are much more likely to validate different religious, political or social ideas than our parents — and certainly our grandparents — were apt to do. [They] are disenchanted with the established church. They perceive the church to be rigid, legalistic, formal, out of touch, superficial and old-fashioned...If Christian people and churches were to set up their commitment to addressing human needs around the world, I believe more 'secular' people in the West would take notice and be more likely to participate” (Third World Faith).

May we tell these stories and learn from them.  Transformation is never too far out of reach. ~Justin