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The Millennium Bug in World Missions

by Jay Gary, Mar 1, 1999

midnightIt’s midnight millennium,
Time to bury the past,
Midnight millennium
We’re going to have a blast.
Midnight millennium,
Three zeros all around.
Midnight millennium,
My computer’s gone down.
(c) by George Heiner

With a crazy mix of doomsday dread and glib party wonder, a recent music CD by George Heiner entitled “Midnight Millennium,” captures both the excitement and anxiety many people feel about the arrival of the Year 2000.

The Y2K computer problem, aka the Millennium Bug, is big business these days for both computer programmers and apocalyptic preachers. As world Christians, we are beyond that, right? “Millennium madness” is someone else’s problem. Or is it?

I have begun to wonder whether world missions has a programming error in relation to the future. Like an imbedded computer code which will not work past the millennium, a great deal of world missions today has been programmed by the expectation that “A Church for Every People” can happen “by the year 2000.”

Despite anecdotal stories to the contrary, come December 2000 some 4,000 peoples will still remain unreached, or 1/4 of humanity with no access to the gospel in way that they can understand from their neighbors.

At that time, will world missions have the emotional energy to rewrite its code for the 21st century? Will a new generation have the imagination to project the unfinished task into the new century in fresh and creative ways?

This Spring marks the 20th anniversary of the watchword, “A Church for Every People by the Year 2000.” To mark the Watchword’s 20th anniversary, I am inviting a number of friends to gather in Colorado Springs on March 15-16th for a national consultation, entitled “The Watchword in World Missions.”

In view of this historic anniversary, here are five things you can do to share the memory and shape the dream of the Watchword in relation to your future.

1. Believe God for a new season in your life.

The origin of a “Watchword” in missions goes back to the calling of Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 1, the prophet described how “the word of the Lord came to me.” Although he considered himself “only a child,” God appointed Jeremiah as a “prophet to the nations” and assured Jeremiah that “I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled.” (Jeremiah 1:12).

What new word is God giving you these days? In what way is your life becoming a promise to the nations, both to uproot and to plant new things? In what ways are you seeing God watch over that word?

I was deeply touched by the birth of the Watchword back in 1979. It brought a whole new season to my life. Within 18 months, I witnessed the creation of the Perspective study program, the launch of the Caleb Project and the gathering of the Edinburgh ’80 Consultation.

Nothing could honor the Watchword on its 20th anniversary than for you to encounter the living God anew and hear his word speak to your destiny. [Top of PageTop of Page]

2. Think deeply about the meaning of world history.

The Watchword opens with the phrase, “A Church” for every people. Most think of the church as a modern building, or at best an organization that can extend across cultures.

If we are called to be prophets to the nations, we ought to rethink the meaning of Christ in history. It was Jeremiah who prophesied the coming of a new covenant when God would write the law on people’s hearts.

As 21st century Christians, we should appreciate the radical nature of God’s New Covenant in Christ. Christ came to make all things new. There is nothing beyond the power of New Creation which transforms all things in Christ.

The church, being gathered from all nations, is the vanguard of this New Creation. Far from languishing unto the end, it builds up civilization to the glory of God. To be a Christian at the advent of the Third Millennium is to live one’s life for the next 33 generations. It means to live in faith that the church of the future, over the next 1,000 years, will reveal more of God and his love in world history. [Top of PageTop of Page]

3. Open your heart to the stranger at your gate.

The Watchword also speaks about “every people.” How open is your life to others from different cultures and viewpoints?

In 1996, I have had the privilege to be in the West Bank and befriend some Palestinian Christians. Initially, I experienced their aspirations for statehood and self-determination as “strange” and counter to God’s work in Israel. But after working in preparation for Bethlehem 2000, I better appreciate their faith. I can now believe God with them for a greater reconciliation of both Jews and Arabs and the emergence of a new century of peace.

God has the deepest desire for every people. He longs to build their house as they come into His. The Watchword speaks of this dynamic of God’s work in and through culture. It calls us to open our hearts wide to the redemptive possibilities to be created among specific peoples in Christ. [Top of PageTop of Page]

4. Cultivate a fluency with the future.

When the Watchword was created in 1979, it envisioned a possibility in Christ some 20 years in the future. What are your visions today for the year 2020? How old will you be? Over the next two decades, what goals do you have for your life, for your children and the nations?

I am saddened that so many people have embraced conspiracism, endism, and isolationism. The church is being eaten alive by apocalypticism and has lost its “fluency” with the future. We need to find authentic Christian ways to think and pray for the human future.

Back in 1988, David Barrett, author of the World Christian Encyclopedia, told me that there would be no future to AD 2000 thinking apart from futures study. I didn’t fully comprehend this at the time, but I took his advice and joined the World Future Society.

I now realize that the study and creation of a better society is one of the most Christian things I can do for the world. The church of the third millennium will not just value “church history” but engage in creating “church futures.” It will draw on fields like agricultural genetics, materials engineering, astronomical sciences, artificial intelligence, environmental management or gerontology. And it will insure these sciences and technologies are transferred to the Third World. [Top of PageTop of Page]

5. Approach the turn of the millennium as Magi.

The final way to honor the Watchword on its 20th anniversary is to approach the year 2000 as more than a milestone. The year 2000 invites us to recapture its spiritual roots. True, the appeal of the year 2000 has attracted all kinds of causes, including world missions. But beyond its artificial role as a finish line, A.D. 2000 reveals the very treasure of God, made known in Christ Jesus some 2,000 years ago.

The year 2000 ought to be a living memorial to Jesus Christ. Anno Domini 2000 speaks of the two-thousandth anniversary of the coming of Christ into this world. In this light, we ought to approach the year 2000 with the spirituality that led the Magi to follow a unknown Star. The new millennium calls us to embark on a journey in search of Christ, and to find his eternal Kingdom of goodwill, which alone is worthy of our gifts and service. [Top of PageTop of Page]

De-bugging World Missions

Through the Watchword of “A Church for Every People,” heaven invites us to be pilgrims once again, as Abraham became, as Jesus was on his journey to Jerusalem. Whole peoples and cities await the transforming power of the gospel. The good news is that we share in that transformation “already here” through Body and Blood of Christ.

In view of the arrival of the 21st century, it’s time to rewrite the code of world missions. It’s time to call a whole new generation to enter a new land in the new century.

I expect “A Church for Every People” to have a promising future in the new millennium. It will not be an extension of a failed campaign, but a powerful vision of transformation, for us as persons and for whole peoples.

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