Empowering Kingdom Growth is our overarching passion as a denomination. We want to see God use us as an instrument to expand His Kingdom. We have regularly underscored that this is not a program but a passion. Thus, it will always be anchored in prayer and will focus on spiritual awakening. Yet, we feel it is critical that we provide resources for our churches that will assist them in developing a strategic plan for fulfilling the Acts 1:8 challenge — to reach Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the Ends of the Earth. This task, we believe, was given to the local church, and the primary role of the denomination and its entities is to assist and partner with your church to accomplish this God-given mandate.
Remember that the Acts 1:8 challenge is to be accomplished simultaneously and not sequentially. In other words, we cannot opt out of our responsibility for reaching Samaria by saying that we must "first" concentrate our energies on reaching our Jerusalem. When a church focuses only on reaching Jerusalem, it is suffering from "spiritual myopia." Our Jerusalem is more visible to us, but it is no more visible to God. We often receive more affirmation for reaching Jerusalem than we do by joining our partners to reach Samaria, but we need to remember that the only one who deserves credit for reaching anyone is God. We need to move beyond church growth and think rather about Kingdom expansion. In this, the third of four articles on EKG and the Acts 1:8 challenge, we consider our responsibilities regarding Samaria.
The Biblical Samaria
Samaria is the name of a mountain, city, and region meaning, "mountain of watching." After the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria, exiles from many nations settled in Samaria. Thus, it became a melting pot for a diverse group of people. In 331 B.C., the Greeks conquered the region and Hellenized the region with Greek inhabitants and culture. The Hasmoneans, under John Hycranus, destroyed the city in 119 B.C. It began to live again under Pompey and the Romans in 63 B.C. Finally, Herod the Great obtained control in 30 B.C. Once again the city was resettled with people from distant places, this time mercenaries from Europe (Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 1224).
But Samaria is not just a geographic location. It is the people of Samaria, the Samaritans, who were on God's heart. Geography was (and is) not the largest barrier in reaching Samaria. The term "Samaritan" elicited an emotional reaction because it spoke to racial, cultural, and religious differences.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Jews and Samaritans despised each other. The Samaritans were descendants of the northern tribes of Israel who, after the Assyrian exile, intermarried with other nations. Thus, they were a people of mixed race and religion who were viewed as compromisers. The bad blood between Jews and Samaritans was generations old. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and the walls, Ezra and Nehemiah refused to let the Samaritans join in the work. It is not surprising that a leading protagonist of Nehemiah was Sanballat, a Samaritan.
In time, the Jewish inhabitants of Samaria chose Mount Gerizim as their place of worship. They limited the Scriptures to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. Thus, in the days of Christ, the relationship between Jews and Samaritans was more than strained. Can you understand why the early disciples were so perplexed when Jesus chose to go through Samaria (John 4:4)? The encounter with the Samaritan woman was not simply surprising because she was a woman of ill repute, she was a Samaritan woman. In truth, she represented well what the Jews expected of a Samaritan woman. Yet, Jesus ministered to her and offered her forgiveness. He took the gospel to Samaria! When Jesus made the "good Samaritan" the star of His famous parable (Luke 10:25-37), it was more than most could fathom. Then, the resurrected Lord stood before them and demanded that His disciples, when filled with His Spirit, must reach beyond Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria.
The parallels between ancient Samaria and North America could not be more obvious. When we think of North America, we see a nation that has become a melting pot of race, culture, and religion. The North American landscape is changing as we experience the population shifts that have altered the make-up of major cities and is quickly impacting rural areas. We are confronted with religious diversity that has created religious prejudices as real as those in the days of Jesus. Our Samaria needs the gospel as much as the Samaria in Jesus' day, and the commission and the message has not been altered.
The EKG Challenge and Celebration
We have suggested that each church have a special task force that will assist the church family in understanding and accomplishing the task of reaching modern day Samaria. The first role of the task force is to help the church to understand the Samaria commission and to communicate a strategy for accomplishing the task before the return of the King. We have suggested that the committee proceed by asking four critical questions. Let's look briefly at the four questions and some of the issues each church faces as they obey the mandate concerning Samaria.
Who is our Samaria? We have identified the North American continent as the location of our Samaria, but location does not provide sufficient data to develop a strategy. How much do you know about the make-up and needs of Samaria?
Did you know that:
• the vast majority of people groups labeled as "unreached people groups" are now represented in North America?
• in the 90s, the Caucasian population grew by 0 percent while the African American, Hispanic, an Asian populations grew at double digit percentages?
• sixty percent of the U.S. population lives in our fifty largest city metropolitan centers?
• according to the 2000 census, one of ten residents of the U.S. was born in another country?
• there are more Jews in America today than in Israel?
• forty-seven million people in the United States age five and older speak a language other than English at home? Twenty-one million of these do not speak English well.
• fewer than 300 hundred Canadian Southern Baptist churches are laboring to take the gospel to more than 30 million people (Nate Adams, The Acts 1:8 Challenge)?
It's this sort of information that will challenge and inform your church to think seriously about the call to Samaria. Your task force can obtain help with information from the NAMB Web site: www.namb.org. The North American Mission Board stands ready to assist the local church to be fully informed about reaching Samaria. Give them a call.
Who are our Samaritan partners? The enormity of the task makes it critical that we understand the partners that we have to assist the local church in this task. No one church has the resources or ability to accomplish the goal of sharing the gospel with all in Samaria, but all of us working together will accomplish this task. Thus, we have a partnership with all like-minded churches throughout North America. Further, we have our North American Mission Board to assist us in coordinating this mammoth task.
When the church has a better understanding of the task of reaching Samaria and the partnerships already in place, they will have a greater desire to work through these partnerships. We are suggesting that every church lead members to participate in a mission project in Samaria. You can work directly with partnership churches in the area to which you feel called, or you can contact NAMB and ask where you can be of the greatest assistance as you join with others in reaching North America. I believe this vision of partnership will increase local church involvement and giving as the church begins to think in larger categories.
What are we doing now? Perhaps you are thinking: "We aren't doing much because we have never had a mission project outside our community or state." I have great news. You are doing more than you think and probably more than your people know. The local church's partnership with other churches through the North American Mission Board has enabled every church to participate in some exciting mission ventures:
• You helped to start over 1,800 new churches every year.
• You helped to reach out to major cities through Strategic Focus Cities.
• You helped in disaster relief projects throughout North America. You have over 25,000 trained disaster relief personnel.
• You helped to fund the work of 25,000 young people through World Changers.
This is only a limited sample of what your church helped to accomplish through your North American Mission Board. The vast scope of the task of reaching our Samaria demands that we support our partnerships. Your church can find out even more about all that you are doing by asking NAMB to send you materials or personnel to help with your EKG Challenge and Celebration event.
What remains to be done? Much remains to be done! Our evangelism strategies are not enabling us to keep pace with the population increase in North America. We are going to have to target special people groups and establish churches that minister to various language groups. We are going to have to think creatively as we deal with the different needs expressed within age groups. We are going to have to be willing to attempt things that take us out of our comfort zone. We must be willing to fail and then try something else until we succeed. We must rediscover the cooperative strategy that drew us together as a denomination. We must pray for each other and for the lost.
It is not too late for your church to get involved in the prayer strategy called One in a Million, which calls us to pray for each other. You can use the new prayer bracelet called JJSE to lead your church to pray for lost people in all four quadrants. When they look at the "S" they will also be asked to pray for a home missionary or church planter. Once again the North American Mission Board will help you obtain the name of a missionary or church planter for whom your church can pray.
We must succeed! God's heartbeat is for all the peoples of the world to know Him as King. We can succeed if we work together and give God the glory.
For information on the new JJSE bracelet or for other EKG resources, go to www.EmpoweringKingdomGrowth.net.
Kenneth S. Hemphill is the SBC national EKG strategist.