We just unleashed 150 students on St. Louis.
That may sound like the start of a bad horror movie to you, but in reality, it is the beginning of a mission trip for college students from across the United States in the days before the Southern Baptist Convention. During the next three days, these students will receive a crash course in diaspora missions. For the uninitiated, diaspora missions is the fancy term for working with international peoples that are from other parts of the world here in the United States. These students will learn how to discover and engage foreign born residents with the gospel.
The work this week is a partnership of several Southern Baptist organizations. The Baptist Association here in St. Louis has run point on the event, but I am working with colleagues at the North American Mission Board to provide training for the students during the week.
My purpose in informing you today is two-fold. First, these students need your prayer for their labor this week. Second, I wanted to outline for you the process we are using, as it is reproducible in other cities. You may not have 150 students at your disposal, but the methods work the same with a small group from your church, or a group of churches. In short, I am going to describe how this work will happen over the course of this weekend so that others can attempt similar efforts in their own cities.
The vast majority of this strategy is built around immersion experiences. The principle is simple: there is no better way to learn than by doing. This is especially true when you only have a short amount of time. Our three days of instruction will be primarily on-field. We will have a brief instruction time in the mornings with our students for about an hour, but then we will send them out for the day to actually be immersed in the process of discovery and engagement.
Students are broken down into small groups of 5-7 people and will have various locations to visit over the course of their day. They will visit a temple or a mosque (and trust me, that is ok), they will eat a meal in an international restaurant, and they will find other places of interest like shops or markets that cater to international peoples. However, these students will not just be hanging out at these places. They are going armed with the gospel.
The students go out armed with gospel, but they will return with loads of valuable information. This information is vital to ongoing work with people groups in the city. After all, the work they are doing is discovery work, attempting to find out what kinds of people are in this city so that they can be reached with the gospel. The instruction time in the morning is designed to give them categories through which to view the experience and questions they can ask while visiting to begin understanding the culture and worldview of the people they encounter. In essence, they are given a crash course in cultural acquisition. At the end of each day, the students will all come back together for a time of debrief where they will share about their experiences and pull together all of their combined information to begin developing a picture of the people group makeup of St. Louis.
Of course, there is some important work that must be done prior to these immersion experiences. Before being able to send student teams on excursions during the day, potential locations had to be discovered. This can often be done simply by searching for mosques, temples, restaurants and other locations on the internet. While these searches will provide limited results, they provide the first places to send teams on discovery. This week, potential routes have been established for groups that allow them to visit the different types of places mentioned above. With 150 students, that took a lot of searching and setup in advance by a very competent partner at NAMB. She spent a lot of time and effort compiling routes and making advanced phone calls to places for this many students. However, when doing this with one or two churches, the advance work is much simpler.
Sustainability - Embedded Local Churches
But these students are only here for a week. Any work they do is limited by the amount of time they are here, and a long term strategy cannot be built on using people from outside the community to do the work. That is where local churches come into the picture.
Here in St. Louis, we have a number of local churches who have already begun reaching out to their new neighbors or are interested in starting. These churches have members who will embed themselves in the student teams. By doing this, we have local believers connected to a local church (who will be here longer than a week) to continue on with any engagement opportunities that do arise. In addition, they will be learning method alongside the students this week.
Discovering and reaching people groups in US cities will rise and fall on the backs of local churches. This is not a sending agency ministry. We cannot expect state conventions, associations, or missions agencies to do the Great Commission for us in our own cities. They have important roles to play in training and equipping churches, but the Great Commission belongs to the local church.
The benefits of this strategy should be obvious. First, we have 150 students from across the country who will gain first-hand experience in engaging cross-culturally right here in the US. Hopefully, it will change the way they see their own city as well and they can go back home sensitive to reaching the least-reached that now find themselves in arms reach of our churches.
In addition, their efforts in the city will gather important information for those churches that are working alongside them this week. Some of these churches will develop key relationships at businesses, restaurants, and perhaps places of worship this week. They will meet people and begin the process of hospitality and evangelism. Perhaps they will be able to start evangelistic Bible studies and even see churches planted down the road.
Finally, different churches here in St. Louis who see the Great Commission responsibility to reach out to these new groups will work together this week to do just that. Often, multiple churches in the same city will have a passion to reach people groups and simply do not know about each other. This week, we are bringing several of those churches together in a way that can spark cooperative ministry for years to come.
And the best part… you can do the same where you are. Consider gathering some local churches and having an immersion weekend in your city. Maybe you can start out with several local youth groups as a means to teach them and gather information. Or, start smaller than that. Gather a team of people inside your own church and make a list of places where you can begin to discover and engage people groups. You may be amazed where it leads.