I have spent the past decade leading the work of the Church Missionary Society in Victoria, Australia. A big part of my job has been convincing the local church that the Great Commission truly applies to them—especially the part about making disciples of all nations. 

A big part of my job has been convincing the local church that the Great Commission truly applies to them 

As church growth in the Minority World flatlines—and even goes backwards—and as orthodox biblical Christianity seems increasingly under pressure in a secularising context, churches have tended to focus their missional energy closer and closer to home. Mission once meant serving in far-away foreign places. Now it means anything that a church does that looks beyond its believing community—typically evangelism in its immediate neighbourhood. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard a local church leader declaring, “We don’t need to go to the nations; the nations have come to us.”

I feel like screaming, “NO! NO! NO!” in their faces, but I’m probably too Asian and polite. 

I would like to present the case for keeping the cause of making disciples of all the nations before us. I believe that Charles Perry, the firmly evangelical founding bishop of Melbourne, got it right when he said in 1851 that “the best means of ensuring the health of the local church is a vital commitment to world missions.” 

The best means of ensuring the health of the local church is a vital commitment to world missions.

—Charles Perry

It is not merely because the ascended Lord Jesus Christ commissioned his disciples to make disciples of all nations—although he certainly did so; and it makes sense that if Jesus said it, we ought to do it; and we can trust that it will be good for us individually and for his body the church. 

Nor is it merely because this is the revealed trajectory of his people, the Church—although the trajectory is certainly there! As we read the Scriptures from beginning to end, we see how God’s promise to Abraham (that he and his family would be a blessing to the nations) is progressively fulfilled through salvation history. 

Redeeming Babel 

Dramatic high points for this story occur in the New Testament. We see the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost and the worship of the nations gathered in Acts 2. We observe the rapid expansion of the church beyond the Jews to all manner of Gentiles through Acts. We witness Peter’s conversion to this plan as he fully embraces God’s plan that all the nations will be brought into the Church of which Jesus made him the Rock. 

Lately I’ve become enamoured of the idea of God redeeming Babel. We know the story from Genesis 11: 

  • The people of the earth speak one language.
  • They have advanced technologically enough to make throughly baked bricks—stronger than stone.
  • They use that skill and linguistic unity to erect a tower to the heavens, “that we may make a name for ourselves.” (Does this sound like secular scientific pride?)

But the Lord’s assessment is immediate and clear: 

If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. (Gen 11:6)

Amazing! Humanity has such created nobility and creativity and power that if we were truly united, nothing would be impossible for us. I wonder if this will take us to Mars in my lifetime. 

But in Genesis 11, we use our skill and unity to thumb our noses at God, steal his glory and attempt to make a name for ourselves. That is, we try to establish the rule and honour of humanity, swapping the worship of the Creator for the worship of created beings. God’s judgement is to break our unity and scatter us into different languages and cultures. 

Babel Redeemed 

By one estimation, there are just under 7000 languages in the world today. In Australia alone, there were once between 250 and 350 distinct indigenous languages. Italy has potentially 500. Famously, the tiny nation of Papua New Guinea has over 800. 

At Babel, the scattering into different languages and cultures is a judgement against human pride and sinfulness. But in Revelation 7 these different languages and cultures are reunited before the throne of the Lamb. John beholds “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” They cry out, “Salvation belongs to our God … and to the Lamb.”

It might be that John means for us to imagine the tribes and nations crying out in to God in their own tongues. 

Is John saying that Babel has been reversed and that humanity now has one language? Maybe. But that’s not the only possibility. It might also be that John means for us to imagine the tribes and nations crying out in to God in their own tongues—something like what happens in Acts 2:6,11.

If that’s what John means, then we aren’t just looking at a reversal of Babel but its redemption—God chooses to use and transform the broken and the consequences of our sin. Every language and culture will be present. There will be braised sweet pork buns in heaven! (Or a nice vegan alternative.) 

Diversity Matters

Again, I can’t prove that this is what Revelation means. But does seem clear that God thinks the diversity of the “great multitude” is important. He isn’t just making up the numbers; he’s assembling a collection. Just as in the creation account, where God makes everything according to various kinds, he enjoys variety.

I want to suggest another reason for us to value diversity in our churches too. Passages such as 1Corinthians 12; Colossians 3:10; Galatians 3:28 talk about a single body made of diverse believers. 1Corinthians 12 talks about a diversity of gifts. The other two passages describe a diversity of ethnicities, genders and classes.

But these two kinds of diversity are also related. Different groups and cultures bring different perspectives, modes of thinking and being, angles on problems and solutions, insights into issues and sensitivities. We also have our own blind spots that we don’t notice until we spend time with other Christians whose blindspots are different.

We will miss out on the genius and glory of humanity if we pursue a homogenous-unit-principle local church.

If I am right about these things, then it means that God’s plan of redeeming Babel applies right now in your local church. We will miss out on the genius and glory of humanity if we pursue a homogenous-unit-principle local church. Remember what God said, “nothing will be impossible for them.” Or remember the Perry quote: the best means of increasing the health of the local church is a vital engagement with world mission and world cultures. 

Hints of Heaven  

Our unity in this present age is a backwards-projection of the heavenly unity to come and a declaration of the power of the gospel to generate a mutual love that crosses cultural boundaries and that will outlast tongues, prophecy and knowledge. The loving unity of such gospel communities would stand in stark contrast to the highly stratified and divided-along-class-ethnic-gender-socioeconomic-status lines of the rest of society. How we need such gospel communities today!

Sure it’s harder work than an English-only service. Sure it’s uncomfortable at times, especially when the food is weird or too spicy (no such thing, according to my mother) or too salty or too bland or too “heaty” (that’s an Asian thing). But the price we pay for comfort is powerlessness, according to Genesis 11. The price we pay for not engaging with all the nations (not just the ones that have come to us) is unfaithfulness, with a side serving of short-sightedness. 

As local churches actively embrace the ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity of believers, we participate in God’s work of redeeming Babel. To the extent that we are not, we are thumbing our noses at the revealed trajectory and final destination of the people of God; and indeed, cutting off our noses to spite the face of the true eternal and multi-cultural multi-lingual multi-ethnic church of our ever-living ever-redeeming Lord. 

May it not be so of your church or mine.