In 2008, Bob Roberts Jr. picked up a chair used during a prayer meeting the night before and noticed a sticker that made him weep. It didn’t bear an inspiring message or Bible verse. It wasn’t a cheery smile or heart. It was a manufacturer’s label that simply indicated where the chair had been made: Vietnam.
Thirteen years earlier, Roberts—the founding pastor of NorthWood Church in Keller, Texas—had arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam, for the first time. “Our church wanted to focus on a single spot for our members to go back and forth, in an area without much Christian work.” Someone suggested Vietnam, saying, “We dropped a lot of bombs over there. It would be nice to drop something good.”
A week later, a trip to Cambodia included a stopover in Vietnam—and Roberts was hooked. “Hanoi was totally opposite of anything I’d ever experienced,” he says. “Seeing people travel on bicycles and motorcycles, [and] the way that people treated one another with great respect—it’s a culture where people are so open with one another.” Soon after, Roberts and members of his church began to volunteer, finding ways to use their skill sets and training to make an impact. Those who were professors wrote curricula. Plumbers in the church came up with a process for filtering water. Business executives began mentoring and training generations of leaders.
Since those first efforts in 1995, some 2,500 volunteers have traveled (most of them multiple times) to Vietnam to work on 60 projects, and over $3.5 million has been spent, not counting projects funded by individuals. Roberts estimates more than four million lives have been touched. “We have an office there run by the North Vietnamese,” he says, “and have learned to work openly within the country’s laws.”
It took only a short time for the Vietnamese government to approach Roberts and ask how his team felt about starting an NGO (non-governmental organization). That’s how Glocal Ventures was born and church members were mobilized to work locally and globally (hence, glocally). This is one of the ways Roberts approaches evangelism: He connects like-minded people—doctors to doctors, accountants to accountants, teachers to teachers.
“Today, about a dozen churches go through our NGO, and we work with the government to engage with society in Vietnam,” he says. “This has led to dealing with religious issues there.” A “Faith and Its Value to Society” conference has been planned—an event where, according to Roberts, “we will talk about how people of faith bring value to society. Educators, doctors, artists, business leaders, politicians, and government leaders from America will speak about how our faith has impacted our lives in the States and in the world.”
Roberts has done these types of projects in other countries—Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan—with amazing results. “We did a project where we brought imams and pastors together, and the response was incredible!” he says. “We clearly explained what we believe about Jesus. We also told them that our faith teaches us to be a blessing to all humanity. Our focus was on how we can serve together in that context.”
A Right-Hand Man
Working closely with Roberts is Omar Reyes, NorthWood’s Glocal Impact Pastor. Reyes met Roberts about 12 years ago when their daughters attended elementary school together. “He asked me to help with his missions—not as a job but as a calling,” explains Reyes. “I’d heard his ideas, and they resonated with me. His vision was that a church is called to do everything. I’d grown up in churches that outsourced a lot of stuff, but Roberts taught me that every member is a missionary, and your vocation is your job. The church exists to equip you in your domain.”
“My calling is to help the church understand her calling—to be a missionary to the world.”
Reyes describes Roberts as a “big guy in many ways. He’s an apostolic guy, always thinking about the big picture. He’s gregarious and happy and generous—a missionary at heart who loves the world and always looks for that unique aspect of God in people. He’s also a great encourager and calls things out of you that you didn’t know you had.”
But Roberts wouldn’t describe himself in such lofty terms. To him, the goal is simple. “As a pastor and a theologian, I teach people to live out their faith on a daily basis and to use their job as their primary point of ministry,” he says. “My calling is to help the church understand her calling—to be a missionary to the world. Christians have taken missions and turned it into a job description for a handful of people, but the Great Commission was given to everyone.” He says he has learned that Christians are meant not to serve to convert but to serve because they are converted.
Vicky Scott, a business leader who’s been mentoring women in Hanoi, met Roberts when she moved back to Texas in 2007. Scott grew up a pastor’s daughter. “I thought of mission trips as going to teach the Bible or paint an orphanage. Roberts didn’t do that kind of thing, so I thought I’d just write a check [to the church]. But when I heard some of the things going on, such as microfinance projects, it struck me—This is something I’m uniquely qualified to do.” Scott has returned to Vietnam many times since that first trip.
“Bob’s a visionary,” she says. “There’s no question: He’s a visionary with a heart for people, someone who’s not afraid to be different and to go against the typical Christian approach, whether going to Vietnam or reaching out to Muslims. It is truly out of the ordinary.”
“Most people come to church for an hour and say, ‘Feed me.’ The kingdom is more than that. It’s living out the gospel.”
Echoing Scott’s comment about the challenge of getting Christians to step out of their comfort zone, Roberts says: “It’s tough getting over your fear of other people. I was raised in deep East Texas, in a very closed and conservative society. We tended to look at other people with suspicion and fear. When I began to work with people of other cultures, I didn’t realize how much my own tribe would criticize me. They’d ask, ‘Why are you friends with Muslims? They’re our enemies.’ But that’s not true. They need Jesus!”
Roberts speaks out loudly about the need to be sensitive and wise as evangelicals. Last July, he said this on social media: “Our society is losing its ability to be civil with one another when we have differences of beliefs and opinions. As we become more and more polarized, it is leading to an inability to have valuable public discourse. Whether you disagree on politics, religion, race, or sexual orientation, personal attacks and conflict do little to provide peaceful solutions in a pluralistic society. Pray for me this week as I work with international religious leaders to form bonds of mutual respect, understanding, and support for one another though we differ in our views and beliefs.”
Investing in the Kingdom
Another challenge Roberts and his team face in their outreach efforts is the culture of consumerism. Omar Reyes explains: “We have domesticated Jesus. We’ve brought Him into the building and told Him we’re going to control Him there. Most people come to church for an hour and say, ‘Feed me.’ The kingdom is more than that. It’s living out the gospel.” And that means taking risks whenever God asks you to do so.
Roberts was initially nervous, even fearful, about working with government officials there, but then he found a solution. “I got to know them as people and then as friends,” he says. “Before, I just knew them as communists. Later I began to know them as people whom Jesus loves and as people who might come to love Jesus.”
As Vicky Scott sees it, while other churches may focus on the number of people who receive Christ, Roberts takes a more strategic approach to mission trips: how to wisely invest in the world and bring God’s kingdom closer to the daily lives of the people being ministered to. When he and his teams go to Vietnam, they may not come back with a high number of baptisms. But Roberts has been working on religious freedom legislation in the country—something that will make baptisms the open invitation they’re meant to be for one and for all, and for generations to come.
Reflecting on the past 20 years, Roberts says, “The work in Vietnam has changed the entire nature of our church. We began to understand how we could use our jobs to bless people and share those things that matter most, as well as how a church engages the world. There is no doubt in my mind that [our congregation] has benefited massively. And like so many things in our church, we were also ‘Made in Vietnam.’”
Photography by Wyatt McSpadden