A missionary to Burma* would arrive to his field of service having very little familiarity with his new host culture. Any missionary worth his salt would immediately set out to learning about the people– their beliefs, values, language, and lifestyle. In the process, the missionary is likely to observe some things about the culture that he does not understand. He is also likely to find some things he understands perfectly but completely disagrees with.
For starters, the missionary may immediately notice the poor treatment of women in the country. Burmese girls are often married off at very young ages, and many are denied formal education and medical care. The missionary may also abhor the existence of sweat shops and the practice of child labor that is common in some areas. These conditions are symptoms of sin, and should be opposed by God’s people.
The missionary would probably also find things about the culture that offend him personally. He may find taxation exessive, the media biased, and the country’s immigration policies unfair. Of course, he would likely be frustrated by the fact that the Burmese government does not want him to be in their country. Though his presence is illegal, the missionary moves in and gets to work anyway (he has, after all, been sent by God). Nevertheless, a good missionary would probably not get tangled up in these sorts of things. He’s here to be Jesus to the Burmese people, not to fight for governmental fiscal responsibility.
The missionary keeps in mind that he is in this place for a reason. He therefore concerns himself with the most important things– with exegeting culture for bridges and barriers to the gospel, and with building relationships in order to make disciples. What this missionary would not do is work to maintain his comfort, preserve his preferences, insure his personal safety, or fight for his rights.
As I travel the world and interact with Christians from different traditions, I’m struck by their very unmissionary concerns. They’re worried about their security, their reputations, and their rights. They bemoan the fact that their mission field is not reflective of the Kingdom, that the people to whom they’ve been sent don’t worship the Most High God.
And how do these unmissionary Christians respond to the ungodliness of the world around them? By complaining rather than proclaiming. By fighting for their rights rather than turning the other cheek. By isolating themselves in a “Christian” subculture.
If the missionary to Burma behaved this way, we’d call him a bad missionary. We’d say that he’d become concerned with the affairs of this world and distracted from his mission. Of course, a missionary to Burma isn’t our model for mission., Christ is. His attitude toward an unbelieving world was blessing. He sacrificed His comfort, His rights, –His life– on their behalf. This is the mind all Christians ought to have. In Christ, we are all necessarily missionaries. The question is whether we will be good ones, or distracted ones.
*I have no knowledge of missionaries in Burma. I also am aware of the fact that “Burma” the country is called Myanmar.
For a related post, please read: “You’re Not From Around Here Anymore“
“You know,” the woman said, in a serious tone. “I have the most important job in the world– even more important than the President of the United States.”
The woman was a trustee for a large missions sending organization. She took her job seriously, and it showed. But how was this the most important job in the world?
“As a trustee, my job is to decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.”
She went on to explain: “We trustees decide where funds are allocated, and where missionaries will be deployed. If we assign resources to an unreached people group, we’re ensuring that they hear the gospel and have an opportunity to know Christ. But we’re stretched thin. Churches aren’t giving enough for us to send missionaries to all the places that need them. We have to say, “sorry, we don’t have enough to go around, so you all have to go to hell.””
I couldn’t believe my ears. The audacity, the pride, the ignorance– the bad missiology– were appalling.
Unfortunately, this “savior complex” is ever-present in the missions world. Just as medical doctor might come to believe that he has ultimate power over life and death, passionate and well-intentioned missionaries often believe that they are the only hope for the world. This subtle lie undermines the gospel with short-sighted, human-centered, modernistic missiology.
The only way to change the conversation about mission is to actually have a conversation, so here are my thoughts regarding the Most Important Job In The World:
Firstly, we must understand that “the mission” we talk about isn’t our mission, it’s God’s. He is redeeming sin-slaves to himself. He chooses to use us to accomplish His purposes, but He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. He is not a weak God, limited by our disobedience or our resources.
Secondly, while this woman’s organization was indeed sizable and effective at sending full-time career missionaries, God is doing much more than what the agency is capable of doing. He is sending regular people with regular jobs to make disciples among tribes all around the world. The organization’s strategic plan is but a small part of God’s activity among in the world. Knowing this is key to our humility.
Finally, we must be clear– the only thing sending people to hell is guilt of sin. Not the decisions of the “haves” regarding the “have-nots,” not the strategies of mission organizations. And the only thing that saves people is the grace of God through Jesus; not the luck of the draw or the efforts of His people.
This mistaken notion that the fate of the world depends on our organizations and institutions must be challenged, and replaced with the truth that Christ alone is the hope of humanity. Our part is to surrender to step-by-step obedience as He orchestrates His work of redemption.
In light of that, all of our jobs are equally important (and unimportant).
I’m curious about the many different takes (and assumptions) Christians have concerning international missions. For some people, it’s a task we need to accomplish for God. For others, it’s a calling they can’t shake. Others still are content to pay others to do mission for them. Many don’t know much at all about the endeavor. My theory is this: our perspective on mission is shaped by the information we receive about mission.
In other words, we don’t learn about missions in general and then fill that in with information about individual people and places. The foundation of our understanding is never really formed at all; instead we’re bombarded with pieces of information and then left to fill in the whys and hows on our own.
So I’ve got a quick question for you:
“Mission exists because worship does not.” With this phrase, John Piper begins his reformed missions manifesto, “Let the Nations Be Glad.” His assertion is simple: that worship is the goal of missions. I’ve written quite a bit about this book lately, and I’m seeing just how great an impact it has had on modern missiology. I’m thankful for Piper’s influence; he continues to push churches toward direct involvement in the Great Commission.
Nevertheless, I have to disagree with Piper’s premise. Despite the fact that he’s one of the few reformed theologians out there committed to missiology (Don’t believe me? W. Grudem’s 1200-page Systematic Theology devotes less than a paragraph to mission!), he begins with the same basic assumption that Christians have been making since the Enlightenment. This single understanding is responsible for all the places where we get missions wrong: that mission is a means to an end.
All traditional missiologies operate under the assumption that missions is how we get to “the end;” namely, vision in John’s revelation of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation” worshiping at the foot of God’s throne. From this perspective, missiology is eschatology; it’s purpose is only found in how it pertains to Christ’s return. God has shown us that this is His end, we’ve assumed that it is ours to accomplish on His behalf. Missions, then, is how we “finish the task.”
And this despite the fact that everything having to do with spiritual regeneration is solely the work of God. Has he commanded us to do something that only He can do? No! Our part is to obey in going, He handles the saving. This is why we’ve (fortunately) altogether stopped measuring missionary effectiveness by the number of salvations (and even percentages of “reachedness”), and instead (unfortunately) taken to measuring things like “engagement” and “access.” (These, we conclude, fall more squarely on the human side of the equation).
But what if mission is more than just how God accomplishes His purposes in human history? What if mission is the chief end of humanity?
God has revealed Himself as a going God. He intentionally left his place at the Father’s right hand to join human history to be a missionary among us. It was in His going that the Father is glorified. Every interaction between God and humanity recorded in scripture ends with God sending the ones to whom He reveals Himself. “Go… to the land that I will show you.” He goes, and sends us. “and sent them on ahead of him… where he himself was about to go.” “Because He is a going God, we are going people.
There is no Christianity apart from the going. We go from wherever we were when God found us to wherever He leads next. We go to serve, to preach, to heal, to love, and to “sin no more.” “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” “Go and make disciples of all nations.” There is no “stay and worship Me,” in the Bible, only “go and worship Me.”
My point is this: the spread of the gospel to all nations is not the goal of mission, it’s the result of it. If we are obedient to the commands of our Lord, we will be going people- actively proclaiming the gospel through word and deed in “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Piper and others get it wrong when they say that God is glorified when people bow before Him in an end-times worship service. No, He is glorified when people go in His name.
Earlier this year, my friend, Ed Stetzer, planted a Grace Church in Hendersonville, TN. In addition to being a church planter, Ed is a missiologist, research expert, and prolific author and blogger.
I imagine there’s added pressure, and not a small amout of scrutiny, when you’re a well-known missions and church-planting teacher, to plant successfully. I wish Ed and Grace Church the best as they continue to develop gospel ministry to the people of Sumner County, and I don’t want to add expectations.
It is interesting, though, to look at a missiologist’s approach to planting a church in the United States.
I encourage you to pray for Ed and the Grace Church leadership team. Beyond that, follow them on their journey. They are very deliberate about being connected on social media, and Ed is very approachable on his blog. Please feel free to ask him questions. It’d be a shame for us all to miss the opportunity to learn from the decisions he’s making along the way.
Though the anthropological approach to mission was proposed and made popular by decidedly non-Calvinist leaders (R. Winter, D. McGavran), reformed thinkers such as J. Piper and J.D. Greear have adopted the philosophy and developed missiologies around it. For those who believe that the eternal destiny of human souls depends on the Church’s evangelistic efforts, it makes sense that they would want to “expect great things from God and attempt great things for God.” But for those whose theological persuasion alleviates that burden of guilt, the anthropological approach might seem like a non sequitur.
The discussion has been happening among the different tribes on the interwebs, but it’s still relatively unexplored. Until J. Piper’s book, “Let the Nations Be Glad” hit the scene back in 1993, reformed Christians were seen as the foil to the Church’s fulfillment of the Great Commission. In focusing on the supremacy of God’s glory as the basis of global mission, the reformed found the key to human involvement in God’s predestined activity. “Reaching unreached ethnolinguistic people groups” became the point of cooperation for Christians of various theological perspectives.
Henry Blackaby teaches that Christians should follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit and get involved where they see Him at work. Most in the missions world emphasize the importance of an individual’s “calling” to missionary service. Many in the reformed camp ridicule these positions, claiming that looking for such guidance from God amounts to seeking “extra-biblical revelation.” They say that we get all the guidance we need on mission from the scriptures. That the Spirit-led missions of Paul, Peter, Phillip, and the early church were unique to that early time in the Church’s history, and in no way normative for us today. (EDIT: Tim Challies’ recent series makes this argument) After all, they say, who is a missionary today to compare himself to the Apostles? God doesn’t have a “specific” will for our missionary service, they say. Instead, they propose that our involvement be motivated by our reading of scripture, our obedience to the Great Commission, and our application of wisdom.
It takes some theological leaps to arrive at the conclusion that after commissioning the church to make disciples in all nations, God went incommunicado.
Firstly, all of the Biblical examples of the church on mission were Spirit-led. Jesus sent out the 72 and told them that they would know they were in the right place when “their peace rested” there. Peter was led by a vision that challenged his understanding of the gospel. It “seemed good” to the Jerusalem council to send disciples to the missional church at Antioch, but it’s clear that what “seemed right” to them was heavily informed by step-by-step guidance from the Holy Spirit. Paul and Barnabas were sent out from the Antioch church when the Holy Spirit spoke to the congregation, calling out the two men as a they worshiped. Yes, all of these were historic “firsts” for the church. But if the Apostle’s utter dependence on the Holy Spirit wasn’t meant to be normative for the church on mission today, why doesn’t God provide us with examples who were strictly canon-led?
If there really isn’t any further direction from God when it comes to our participation in His global mission, it makes sense that we should hold tightly to a framework that “seems good” to us. It’s understandable that we would extrapolate a goal and then devise a plan to complete the task. But then we’re left to split hairs over Christ’s understanding of “ethne” and what to do about the Unreached People Groups who have already become extinct (without, to our knowledge, ever hearing the gospel).
But if you believe that the Holy Spirit (who lives in us) is not silent today, we must allow Him to orchestrate our efforts- even when they contradict the strategies we’ve developed out of our interpretation of scripture. Here’s how this plays out practically:
- Sending: The church must only send those who have been called. This calling is made by the Spirit and affirmed by the local church. Even if someone meets all the criteria for service, we cannot assume it is good to send him out.
- Strategy: Statistics and ethnography are good tools for us as we organize our resources, but ultimately we must do what the Spirit leads us to do- even if it doesn’t fit our expectations. If God leads us to minister among a “reached” people, we must be willing to obey.
- Evangelism: Knowing that people are moved to faith by the Holy Spirit, we should be in constant communication with Him. Because He knows the “hearts of men,” He knows what we should say and when. He knows whose hearts He is preparing. Mission happens on His time, not ours.
- Church Planting: Unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain. As we make disciples, churches are formed. But what those churches should look like, what they should redeem and what they should reject, must be done according to scripture as illuminated by the Spirit. Otherwise, we get contextually inappropriate expressions of church.
Does God have a “specific will” for us as believers? I don’t know. Should we ask Him for guidance in every little thing? Probably not. But when it comes to our obedience in His mission, the pattern is clear: With an attitude of worship and humility, we should do what “seems good” while listening for His guidance and watching for the circumstances of His providence. This isn’t looking for “extra-biblical” revelation, it’s relying on the Spirit of Jesus for the interpretation and application of His Word.
The other day I heard an American pastor talking about the problems his church was facing. Their worship center was at least %80 full during their Sunday service. They’d had a difficult time finding a replacement children’s minister after the old one left for a bigger church. The city wouldn’t grant them a permit to perform their Christmas musical in public. Their video projectors need new bulbs every six months.
These are first-world problems.
Some of the “problems” we face in our everyday lives aren’t problems at all. We complain, but most of the world’s population would consider it a luxury to get to decide what to wear or where to eat. We’re more than blessed. We’re spoiled.
I had a hard time sympathizing the pastor’s complaints. Often, when I talk to churches about their direct involvement in global mission, I hear very lame excuses blaming these “problems.”
“To support a missionary,” I’ve heard said, “we’d have to cut into our recreation budget.”
“We just can’t do a mission trip this year,” they say with a straight face, “because we’re committed to three weeks of camp this summer.”
What we’ve got to realize is that with our blessing comes obligation. Opportunities are responsibilities. That we have the option of hopping on a plane and traveling to pretty much any part of the world we’d like means that we must to go when we can. There are no excuses, and nothing is more important that our complete obedience to the God who has sent us.
Of course, one “problem” we can face is the overwhelming number of choices. How to get started, and where, can be difficult decisions. Fortunately, God doesn’t leave us alone to make those decisions. Jesus promised to go with us, and His Spirit is our guide. We need to recognize that “too many ways to help the world” is a very good problem indeed.
Though I’ve finished with my series on the scripture translating The Seed Company, I can’t stop thinking about the importance of translation to mission.
Early Spanish and French “explorers” (their countries refer to them as “missionaries,” others call them “conquerors”) traveled to the New World to expand kingdoms- both God’s and their kings’. Not being able to communicate verbally, the Catholic explorers used the pictures in their Bibles to share Christianity with the natives. When all you’ve got is one picture of a mother holding her child and another with her crying at his feet as he hangs on a cross, you end up with a syncretistic Virgin Mary cult.
Mission is translation. Taking the gospel from one context (the one in which you received it) and translating it into another context (that in which you find yourself) is the human aspect of mission.
Translation into written languages is a challenging enough, but translating the gospel into a culture that has no written language can be extremely difficult. The language must be learned by the translator, codified with the assistance of nationals, and then taught back to the people. The process takes a very long time and requires persistence, creativity, and skill.
Since we’re all missionaries, we’re all translators of sorts- taking the gospel from the Christianized context in which we received the message and translating it out to those around us who do not know Christ. What you may not recognize, though, is that many of the “tribes” we work and live among are post-literate.
A group is post-literate when images, or symbols becomes their primary mode of graphical communication. Post-literates may technically be able to sound out words on a page, but they understand and retain little of what they’ve “read.” They have become so used to bullet-points, excerpts, and snippets that their eyes do not track from one line to the next in large blocks of text. autocorrect has supplanted the ability to spell. Acronyms, emoticons, and avatars have replaced the written word. Reading is becoming a lost art.
In some ways, our efforts to accommodate post-literacy has perpetuated and even caused it. Everywhere you look you can find evidence of reading-attention deficit disorder. News articles became blurbs on a ticker and 140-character status updates. Restaurants traded descriptions of dishes for depictions of them. Churches replaced pew-back Bibles with Powerpoint slides. There are “universal” symbols for peace, laundry, and gay pride. We communicate concepts not with words but with symbols. No one has to write the word “recycle” because we all know that the triangle made of three arrows means “plastic, paper, and glass go here.”
The answer to post-literacy may lie in missionary strategies among the pre-literate. Where people have no written language, missionaries tell the gospel through story. Rather than spending time teaching people to read, Christians are relaying the story of God’s interaction with humanity through simple, memorable, and easily-retold stories. This, of course, is how the Torah was handed down through generations, and how the gospel was retained through the early spread of Christianity, the Dark Ages, and the the 1970s.
Will this work to effectively share the gospel among the post-literate? I think it can, but we must improve our story-telling abilities. As we leave the realm of Bible translation for a more subjective scripture storying, we begin to compete with the best tales and tellers a culture has to offer. As we’ve seen with the mainstream public’s indifference to film and audio adaptations of scriptural events, non-believers are more used to being entertained than challenged. I’m not suggesting we try to outdo Hollywood, I’m saying that we can’t depend on Charleton Heston anymore.
Any discussion of scripture translation is incomplete without addressing post-literacy. While we must preserve both the words of scripture and the ability to read them, we must also be prepared to share the gospel with those who do not and cannot read.
PREVIOUSLY: In The Meantime
When you’re in the holding pattern between direction and destination, there’s no time to waste. Once you’ve heard from God, the mission have begun. Believe it or not, the time in-between is a vital part of mission. Here are some things every missionary should do while waiting for further instructions:
Learn: If you know God’s called you to the Middle East but He hasn’t provided the means just yet, throw yourself into studying all you can about the history, geography, languages and cultures of the area. Knowing that King Xerxes was Persian and that the capital city of Yemen is Sana’a will help prepare you for when you’re finally there. Knowing the 5 boroughs of New York city will come in handy when you’re ready to move. If you don’t know the difference between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, you may not get the right visa. Do anything you can to get a jump start on acculturation.
Meet nationals: There’s no reason to wait until you hit the ground to start meeting people. Odds are that the people to whom you’ve been called also live in the U.S. Find them! Also, there are lots of opportunities to meet people from nearly every part of the world via the internet. Meeting nationals helps build your knowledge of the culture and love for the people. Anyone you meet could be a person of peace, accepting you and your message on behalf of their people and opening doors for you into the culture. Wouldn’t it be great to know people before you even arrive?
Blog: Communication is a vital part of missionary support. But you don’t have to wait until you arrive on your field of service to start sharing the story of your journey. To build a strong support base, start a blog and write honestly (and regularly!) about your life as you pray through the process and prepare for service. Language classes are terrific blogging fodder. Getting out of debt can be inspiring. Discipling your church into strong missiology can help others do the same with their churches. Use social media (which is both free and easy) to bring others along by telling your story.
A time of waiting can be a gift from God. Use it to prepare. Listen to God. Learn the culture. Make a effort to connect. These things will make all the difference when you finally get to go.
PREVIOUSLY: When You See It Coming
When it comes to missionary service, don’t wait for a “calling.” I know, this sounds contradictory to my insistence that our endeavors be Spirit-led, but the truth is that we are missionaries already. The call to follow Jesus is the call to incarnation of the gospel. We’re all missionaries.
Nevertheless, many of us have received “special instructions” from God about our service. For some, it’s to go to a place foreign to us to do the work of translating the gospel into another context. For others, it’s a move into an urban center. Some are called to entrepreneurship, sacrifice, church planting, and advocacy. But being called isn’t the same as being ready. Here’s what to when God has given you as sense of what to do, but has left the details a bit fuzzy.
In Acts 13, we read that the church in Antioch was in a time of worship and fasting. It was during that time that God spoke to the church, telling them to set Paul and Barnabas aside “for the work to which I have called them.” The use of the past tense makes it reasonable to assume that both Paul and Barnabas had already sensed their calling. God had already revealed (to Ananias in Acts 9) that Paul was chosen We’re not sure how long it was, but there was clearly a “meantime” between their calling and the confirmation of that calling. Eventually, God spoke to the church to confirm this calling and to commission these men.
The meantime is vital to missions.
In the meantime, you must have your calling confirmed by your church. Not a member of a church? Stop. Join one and serve faithfully until they recognize and confirm your calling. This is a vital step toward accountability; like Paul and the church in Antioch, this is the context for affirmation and it is to this church that you will report. The church is God’s mechanism for sending and maintaining missionaries.
It’s quite possible that your church isn’t ready to send you. For many churches, missions isn’t even on their radar. In this case, you need to use your meantime to bring them along- train, encourage, and equip them as they develop their missiology. This is where many missionaries go wrong. They encounter reluctance (or worse still- indifference) on the part of their church and turn to google for support. A quick search for “Christian Missions agency” will turn up hundreds of parachurch organizations just waiting to help send you. But it is neither wise nor safe to proceed apart from your local church.
Let’s be honest: consulting with a missions sending organization about your call to missions is like asking a real estate agent whether you should buy a house or rent. Mobilizers, as they are called in the missions world, are not impartial. They all think we need more people on the mission field. Most of them measure their success by the number of warm bodies they get to commit to missionary service through their organizations. Most of those organizations raise money by taking a percentage of what they help their missionaries raise. It’s in their interest to make your meantime as short as possible. A recruiter is not impartial. He doesn’t know you. He is less likely to tell you honestly that you have no people skills, would fail miserably at acculturation, and have offensively bad breath. This is your church’s job.
I find it very interesting that, having heard clearly (and unanimously) from God regarding Paul and Barnabas, the Antioch church did not immediately act. Despite the urgency of the need, they didn’t send the men right away. Instead, the scriptures are careful to point out, the church continued fasting and praying before sending them out.
The example here is that we pray. Spend time asking for wisdom. If you are indeed called to another place, you’re going to need a strong relationship with God. That good relationship will allow you to hear clearly from the Spirit as He directs you on mission with vision, discernment, and supernatural insight. In the meantime, spend time reading Luke and Acts, the great missionary books of the Bible. This will help give you some perspective on what story you’re being called into.
NEXT: Ready, Set, Wait