by Robert Hamilton
Robert served as a missionary in Italy (1989-2008) and now works in a pastoral capacity in Newtownards, Northern Ireland.
In the late eighties, my wife, Muriel, and I were living in Northern Ireland and thinking about going into full-time Christian work in Italy. Our first step was to tell the elders of our church. It was a Tuesday night, after the prayer meeting when five or six of them came to our house. We were a young couple, in our late twenties and thought, ‘how do you even start the conversation?’ Well, I started off wrong. I said, ‘Muriel and I have been praying and we’re thinking about full-time Christian work.’ So, one of the elders immediately replied, ‘We’re all in full-time Christian work, brother.’ That knocked me for six before I even got started. But he was right!
In the Great Commission in Matthew 28, in the original Greek, the principal verb is ‘make’ disciples – the ‘going’, ‘baptising’ and ‘teaching’ hinge on the fact of making disciples. It will involve ‘going’, sometimes, for example, from the UK to Central Asia or going across the channel to France. For other people, it might just involve going from one city to another within the same country. Maybe for most of us it will involve going across the street to speak to a neighbour or across the office floor to speak to somebody at another desk. But actually, the geography isn’t all that important. Our primary task is to make disciples.
Now, that begs the question, how do you actually make disciples? The natural logical thing for me to reflect on is, how did Jesus make disciples? He spent time with them – He poured three years of his life into 12 men. He spent time sowing seeds that would only come to fruition later on.
I have a photo that I find constantly challenging. It is a line of men standing together in Colombia. The man on the left is Brian Killins, who went to Bogotá about 40 years ago. He and his wife rented an attic flat in one of the suburbs of the city, which they called the Upper Room. They started by sharing their faith with their neighbours, such as with the guy at the grocery shop. Brian led a man called Carlos to faith, who then led Orlando to faith, who led Ricardo to faith, who then led Cesar to faith who led Chucho to faith. And so the story would continue for 40 years, just one new convert at a time. There are now 27 Upper Room churches in Bogotá with about 2,000 people attending. Now, that is a dramatic story but it was making disciples at a one-to-one level.
Reading Acts 17:26-27, one interesting thing to note is that, for each of us, God has appointed the times and the boundaries of our dwelling places. He has placed you in your street in the year 2023, so that some people might get to know Jesus. It’s unlikely that God will send another missionary to your street – He has you there! In your office, you’re the missionary. With non-Christian family members or neighbours, you’re the missionary. Are you intentionally living the faith on the frontline where God has placed you?
Our primary task is to make disciples.
Mission at the School Gate
I am a grandparent and on Mondays I pick up three of my granddaughters from school. I’m now having the same opportunities at the school gate that I had picking up my own kids while serving as a missionary in Naples. It’s still mission. Maybe it sounds more glamorous when you’re serving in Naples than meeting parents at the school gate in County Down – but it is the same task.
I’m involved with an outreach that runs an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) programme, which has been used as a stepping stone to help immigrants in other ways. The programme is now reaching Syrians, Ukrainians and many other nationalities. It is unlikely that you will go to Syria as a missionary; however, the Lord has brought Syrians here. As of February 2023, local councils have helped 163,500 Ukrainians settle in the UK. You would be ill-advised to visit Ukraine just now. Yet, God has brought Ukrainians to the UK. We all have a frontline, irrespective of geography.
How did Paul evangelise in Corinth, a pagan Greek city with a culture perhaps more like our own than many of the other Jewish contexts where he had preached? Paul spent time reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath, persuading both Jews and Greeks (Ac. 18:4). In John Lennox’s book, Have No Fear, he suggests that we shouldn’t be afraid to ask people about what they’re hoping for and where their hopes lie.
Another word that appears often in the New Testament and the book of Acts especially is ‘testifying’. If you’ve got a testimony, tell it. A few years later, when Paul was writing to the church in Corinth, he talked about his evangelism in these terms: ‘I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some’ (1 Cor. 9:22b). I think this is a great lesson in learning to identify with the people that we’re trying to reach. That does not mean that we do what they do. It does not mean that we believe what they believe. However, it does mean intentionally entering their world and interests. How are we getting on with that? I find it very significant that when Paul preached in Athens, he quoted their poets to aid in defending and spreading the gospel. He knew their poets, he knew the world in which his audience was living.
Apollos also appears in Acts 18, where we learn three things about his style of witnessing. First of all, it says that he spoke boldly with fervour and zeal (Ac. 18:25,26). We too should have confidence in the gospel in sharing the good news of Jesus. Sometimes, we’re on the backfoot; it’s almost as if we’re apologetic. Don’t be – proclaim the gospel with fervour and zeal.
The same passage says that Apollos taught about Jesus. We have some great tools for teaching the gospel, such as Christianity Explored courses or The Word One to One, which is based on John’s Gospel. You find a non-Christian friend and offer to read one chapter with them, then, hopefully, at least a second chapter. The book is laid out in a way that it is very conversational.
Apollos also engaged in public debate, using the Scriptures to explain to the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah. There will be some people who are great public speakers and while you and I might not be quite so good, we can still converse and offer to pray with people. Every Christian has God’s calling upon their life.
A few years ago, I met a man up on the coast in Northern Ireland. He and his wife had lived in the same cul-desac for about 20 years. When they were downsizing, he decided he would go to each of his neighbours and give them a New Testament, along with a letter and his new address. Two years later, one of the neighbours phoned and said, ‘Do you remember you left a New Testament before you moved house? Well, my husband took ill shortly afterwards and he died in the last few weeks. I want to tell you what happened. During his illness he got hold of that Bible and started to read it. Before he died, he indicated that he had come into a living relationship with God.’ What a testimony, through a simple gesture of taking a pastoral interest in their neighbours and leaving a New Testament. I wonder if that is something along the lines of what Paul meant when he said, ‘When I’m with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some’ (1 Cor. 9:22).
May each of us be missionaries on our doorstep!