The horrifying terror attacks unleashed by ISIS and its supporters in the past weeks have opened the eyes of Western nations to a reality Islamic jihadists have lived in for decades: we are at war. It’s an uncomfortable reality we haven’t chosen, but the war is increasingly being brought to our doorsteps.
It would be foolish for me, with no governmental or foreign policy experience, to comment on how our nation engages this war. But followers of Jesus do have the ability to discern the times (1 Cor 2:14-16), and a look at this conflict through a spiritual lens reveals two vitally important realities. The first is that a response solely of armed conflict is doomed to fail. The second is that you and I have just as important a role in the mission to defeat jihadists as any soldier or policymaker. Maybe even greater.
Waging war on just a physical front addresses only a secondary problem. ISIS is not first a political organization, vying for the establishment of a regime. It is this, but it is much more. It is first a spiritual organization, built upon a barbaric fundamentalist ideology: establish an end-times caliphate (Muslim theocracy) that imposes ancient Sharia law and kick-starts the Islamic version of the apocalypse. “Infidels” – be they non-Muslims or apostate Muslims (those who don’t submit to the caliphate) – must be killed or subjugated and enslaved. The overtones of this flood the political world, but the undertones beneath it are far more powerful and deeply rooted.
The unleashing of Western military might may crush ISIS, but it cannot crush the ideology. It’s rooted in Islamic apocalyptic prophecy, and another group of fundamentalists is sure to pick up the baton whenever ISIS may drop it. And war seems to act as kindling for this ideology, stoking the fervor of its adherents and causing even more fire to erupt. As a result, allied Western forces may win the war on a physical front but ultimately lose it on a far more important and invisible one – the spiritual front. This is where our role comes in.
Spiritual problems require spiritual solutions, and a war on Islamic jihadism will only be won to the degree the spiritual front is engaged. Most Muslims, of course, don’t follow a jihadist ideology, and Islamic leaders are working to preach peace and prevent radicalization, but I believe (and I’m sure most readers of this site would agree) that we need to go one step further. At the risk of being overly simplistic, the solution is Jesus. It’s evangelism and missions.
But I don’t want to make that point based simply on my Christian worldview. A lesson from history points to this as well.
Sixteen centuries ago the technologically and socially advanced Roman Empire held political control over a huge geographic expanse, and Roman citizens enjoyed an unparalleled lifestyle of security and luxury. But beyond its borders threats were lurking, and early in the fifth century Germanic tribes managed to sack Rome itself, eventually causing the Empire to divide and collapse.
The underlying causes for the fall of Rome are too numerous to sufficiently list, but Ralph Winter, one of the foremost minds in the study of Christian history and missions, cites a significant one likely to be overlooked by most historians.1 He contends that Rome’s fall might have been prevented, or at least greatly dulled, if Christianity had extended its missional reach beyond Roman borders.
You’re probably familiar with the history: Christianity grew, both through intentional and unintentional missionary effort (persecution), so rapidly that Constantine ratified it as the Empire’s state religion about 75 years before Rome fell. But apart from some small-scale efforts, the Gospel didn’t travel far beyond Roman borders. More relevantly, it made few inroads into the Germanic tribes that would eventually strike at and take down Rome’s gilded civilization. But imagine if it had. What if missions momentum didn’t wane, and missionaries poured out beyond the safety of Rome’s borders, winning the Goths and Vandals and various other tribes to Christ? Would they have gone on to sack Rome, the very society that had brought true life to them?
Answering that question with a confident, resounding “Of Course Not!” would certainly be oversimplifying things. Politics and history are complicated. But it’s hard not to imagine things playing out differently. It’s too bad that history lesson wasn’t learned and passed down, too, because when the Gospel did eventually permeate the Germanic tribes now controlling much of Europe, and a new Empire was established (the “Holy Roman Empire”), it again stagnated. And the unreached Vikings would play the role of pillager this time around, horrifying Europe with all manner of barbaric attacks. What if they had been reached with the Gospel too?
Our modern world is uncomfortably similar. What we call “the West” is highly advanced, mostly secure, globally expansive, and Christianity is its largest and most influential religion. Some would say that the Church is toxically mixed with politics and overly concerned with political clout. But what of the momentum to spread the Gospel elsewhere?
Since the late 1700’s the Gospel has spread, and is spreading, farther and faster than at any other point in history. But 90% of the world’s missionaries serve in areas missiologists classify as “reached” with the Gospel. The areas of the globe classified as “unreached” mostly lie neatly within what we call the “10/40 Window”, a space on the globe defined by the 10 degree and 40 degree North latitudes. Squarely in its center is the Middle East; Muslim people groups make up a large portion of those considered “unreached.”
This may not be the third historical iteration of an attack on Western civilization by peoples across the border who have been under-reached by Christian missions, but the parallels are striking.
When I view modern-day events through this historical lens, and consider the deeply spiritual ideology that extremist groups like ISIS are built upon, I cannot help but be moved to think, “We must make and send missionaries.” We must mobilize and send people willing to take the risk to share Christ with ISIS fighters. We must show them that they fight for a false hope, that there is a Savior who offers them real life and real forgiveness and real joy.
And, to be sure, we must also pray. We must pray for Jesus to reveal Himself as King of Kings and Lord of Lords to those who only view Him as a prophet. We must pray for dreams and visions, and for this, along with missionaries who slip into their ranks, to collapse ISIS from the inside out.
The harvest is still plentiful – there are astounding stories you won’t hear on the nightly news of ISIS members encountering Jesus and turning to Him. The Gospel is powerful and it is spreading. But the workers are still few. More missionaries must go and tell them what a wonderful Savior we have. The souls of millions of unreached people depend on it; perhaps even the fate of the world as we know it depends on it.
I’m convinced that this is why Cru exists – to make and send missionaries. It’s plainly in our mission statement and our DNA. But sometimes it takes events like Paris and San Bernardino to underscore the urgency and importance of what we do.
There is an invisible front to this modern war, and we fight on this front every day we set foot on campus. We must continue to boldly share Christ with the future leaders, technology-makers, the lost people ISIS callously targets as recruits. We must continue to lift our students eyes both to Jesus and to the world. We must challenge them to consider standing up and saying, “Yes, I will go. I will go to those who have never heard.” Our job is the most important job in the entire world.
1 A much longer and more thorough summary of Winter’s historical analysis can be found in the article “The Kingdom Strikes Back: Ten Epochs of Redemptive History,” in Ralph Winter and Stephen Hawthorne, eds., Perspectives on the World Christian Movement – Reader, 4th Ed. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2009), pp. 209-227.
If you’re leading a team then you know you that this is crunch time. There are a few precious weeks with these people who have been entrusted to your care before your staff peel off to focus on MPD and prepare for their summer assignments. You can help your team end well by reminding them that they are not lone rangers. You can lead a discussion on what it means to be a TEAM.
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