2011 October

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“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.

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screen-shot-2011-10-25-at-10-57-51-am-300x173-2503467Earlier 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.

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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.

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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.