I’ve been on a quest lately to trace the roots of the words we use when talking about mission. You know, like the difference between “mission” and “missions.” I’ve written quite a bit about my frustration with poorly-defined, extrabiblical words like “reach” (as in, “reaching the unreached”) and “complete” (as in, “We can complete the Great Commission in our lifetime!”).
Another such word is “missionary.” Obviously, a missionary is someone who has a mission. Being rooted in Latin, the word itself is not found in scripture, but we do see the term apostle (meaning “sent-one”) used in multiple ways that inform our understanding of missionary. In every use, it conveys a sense of sent-ness under the authority of the sender.
What I’ve found is the widespread conflation of three related uses of apostle: the New Testament office of Apostle with missionary gifting and the role of missionary.
The Apostles were the original Twelve disciples of Jesus minus Judas, plus his replacement Matthias, and also Paul. Because they had spent lots of time with Jesus, they were established by the early church as authorities on Christ’s teachings. Of course, these Apostles all died long ago, so we depend on the Scriptures (the New Testament being largely written by Apostles) as our authority on Christ’s teachings.
The “apostolic gifting” is something that is mentioned in Paul’s outline of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 and in Ephesians 4. Paul doesn’t define these gifts, but he does mention in Ephesians 4:12 that they exist “ for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ.” Today, apostolic gifting is commonly understood to be that God-given desire and ability to cross cultures and start ministry in new places.
It’s important to note that while the gifts included in Paul’s list–apostle, prophets, evangelists, teachers, and preachers–are not necessarily given to all believers, the resulting activity of these gifts are expected to be practiced by all of God’s people in some form or another. All Christians should regularly share their faith (evangelism), teach the scriptures (teaching), and proclaim truth (preaching) in some fashion.
Which brings us to the last but most common use of the word, apostle; the role of missionary. Missionaries are those who have been sent out on mission. Regardless of your gifting, if you’ve been sent, you are a missionary. Paul demonstrates this understanding of the word “apostle” by using it to refer to people who neither walked with Jesus (Titus, Epaphriditus, Andronicus, Junia) nor had the gifting of apostle (Barnabas). In Scripture, we find multiple instances of Christ commissioning His people on His mission.
- “As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” John 20:21
- “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20
- “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8
Of course, you may not be a very good missionary (which is to be expected when leaders in the missions community keep telling you that only those who travel to faraway people are, in fact, missionaries). In this case, you would do well to seek out someone with apostolic gifting. Follow them around for a while. Ask them questions. Learn from them.
God’s mission is too important to be left to the professionals. As God’s people, we have all been sent.
Mission is overcoming distance.
Sin separates people from God. This is a spiritual distance that leaves men, women, and children without hope. The Father overcame this distance by living among us and defeating sin through His life, death, and resurrection. God’s people join His mission in overcoming the spiritual distance by proclaiming the Good News for the nations.
Mission also faces the problem of physical distance. It requires overcoming the geographical barriers that separate God’s people from the rest of the world. How can they call upon Him if they haven’t heard? How will they hear unless someone proclaims? Who will proclaim unless they are sent? In order to make disciples, we must go. Sometimes this means getting on a plane, but opportunities to close the physical distance are all around us. We cannot join God’s mission and stay at home.
Which brings us to another distance that must be overcome: cultural. Oftentimes, “the nations” are right next door. Yet because of values, language, and worldview, we face difficulty in relating to people who are different. Cultural distance keeps “Unreached People Groups” being names on a list instead of being our friends, coworkers, and neighbors. Our obedience requires that we move beyond “us” and “them” and into discipling relationships.
In Jesus’ time, social distance was the difference between the “woman at the well” and a Samaritan. Today, it’s the difference between seeing people as “Illegals” and recognizing them as “Lost Treasure.” Social distance is crossed when God’s people deliberately move out of the comfort of homogeneity to live among those who do not share our privilege, advantage, means, or perspective.
Mission cannot be done remotely. There is much distance to be overcome. But as God’s sent-out-ones, we must cross spiritual, physical, cultural, and social barriers with the gospel. This is the mission of the church, and if you’re not involved, you’re not a true disciple of Jesus.
I often hear well-intentioned people equate The Great Commission with the Church’s role in God’s global mission. That is to say, they see “go and make disciples of all nations” as defining the mission of the church today. This view of mission, however, is incomplete. Jesus’ instructions to the 150 or so disciples who were present to watch Him ascend into heaven certainly apply to the church today, but it isn’t the entirety of our mission on this earth.
Let me explain:
Throughout the scriptures, God interacts with humans by sending them to accomplish His purposes. He rarely just pops into human history simply to say hello. He sends His people.
- “Go to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1)
- “Go and speak to the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 3:1)
- “Who shall I send? And who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:9).
- “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you” (Jonah 1:2; 3:1)
- “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3)
The problem is that God send so often, we have to determine when He was sending all Christians for all times in all places, and when He was simply talking to an individual person. At times, God sent individuals (and sometimes groups) to do specific things in His name. In Luke 10, He sent 72 of His followers ahead of Him. In Luke 19, He commanded a couple disciples to borrow a colt for His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. While we recognize the broader application and meaning of these “commissions,” we don’t necessarily interpret these commands as being universal. The question is this: was Jesus speaking to the universal church when He commanded His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations?” The answer, of course, is yes. And no.
As Christopher Write points out in “The Mission of God’s People,” there’s little evidence that the Great Commission served as the primary motivator of the early church’s missionary expansion. In fact Jesus’ words in Matthew 28 aren’t referred to again in the New Testament.
So there must have been something else that compelled (and propelled) God’s people to deliberately cross cultures with the gospel. They certainly went out boldly proclaiming Christ– most of the apostles were killed for talking about Jesus.
Wright asserts that the “something else” was the early church’s understanding of who they were as God’s people. The disciples knew God’s story, and the Great Commission was their place in it. We find ourselves in that same story. Our sentness doesn’t just lie in Christ’s commands to go, but in our identity as His body and bride. He sent his disciples, (and sends us) just as the Father had sent Him.
In Christ, we are God’s called-out people who are then sent back into the world. Sent to do what? Yes, to make disciples. But also to be salt and light. To love our neighbors. To make peace. To care for widows and orphans. To build up the church. To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
We are a people on mission, but we have not only been sent once.
This is the third part of my response to Jason Bolt, who wrote that I am confused about cessationism and mission. For previous posts, see: Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 1. Part 2.
The opportunity to clarify what one has already said is precious indeed. If you’ve ever played back a conversation in your mind, thinking of all that you should have said, you understand what I mean. My hope here is to clarify so that we may have a productive conversation.
In my original post, I never intended to delve deeply into a discussion of cessationism; my point was that for those who don’t believe God “speaks” today, it makes sense that they would adopt a pragmatic anthropological approach to mission. It seemed to Pastor Bolt that I was confused about the doctrine of cessationism. This very well may be the case; as much as I’ve studied these things, I still have a lot to learn.
Goodman disagrees with himself. All along, he has been arguing that we have to receive special and specific revelation from the Holy Spirit. Now, he has changed his tune and says that we need to conduct our ministry according to Scripture.
This reminds me of one of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons. I’m guessing Pastor Bolt may not be a fan of Spurgeon, but I love the way he approached the topic of the Holy Spirit:
“Many persons have been converted by some striking saying of the preacher. But why was it the preacher uttered that saying? Simply because he was led thereunto by the Holy Spirit. Rest assured, beloved, that when any part of the sermon is blessed to your heart, the minister said it because he was ordered to say it by his Master. I might preach to-day a sermon which I preached on Friday, and which was useful then, and there might be no good whatever come from it now, because it might not be the sermon which the Holy Ghost would have delivered to-day.” –C. Spurgeon
Are the “Spirit-led” words Spurgeon referred to here “extra biblical revelation?” How can the translation of human speech into soul-piercing conviction to repentance be considered anything other than work of the Holy Spirit (mystical, secret, or otherwise)?
I’m fascinated with this line of thinking. If, for the cessationist, seeking the Spirit’s guidance in mission amounts to a seance, what else also falls into this category? Should we ask for wisdom, or is that “secret knowledge?” What about conviction? If the Spirit convicts me of spending too much time with my campanology club, is that “extra-biblical revelation?” Of course we need to conduct our ministry according to Scripture. But according to whose understanding and interpretation of Scripture?
Throughout the article, Goodman answers the question of whether or not God has a secret will for believers with a resounding “yes.” Yet, in the end, he specifically answers this question by saying, “I don’t know.” If he really does not know, then why did he write the article?
The term “specific will” is a theological one that I’m not sure I support; that God has mapped out every step of our lives, and that one wrong step makes every subsequent step sin. Yet every example of a missionary we have in the scriptures was guided by the Spirit. So what seems like a contradiction here is really just me trying to be clear: the Spirit illuminates scriptural commissions to us, and we respond accordingly. We don’t blindly float from feeling to feeling, but neither do we lean entirely on our own understanding. God hasn’t left us alone in His mission; why would we act as though He had?
In this series of posts, I’ve deliberately avoided pointing out how few cessationists you’ll find on the international mission field. I’ve been careful not to refer to anecdotal evidence of the Spirit’s guidance in mission. I’ve intentionally ignored the many stories of those missionaries who were providentially given specific words, led into a particular village, or out of harm’s way. I will point out, however, that God’s direct, personal involvement in His mission is consistent with what we read in scripture. It is God who sends His church on His mission, and he uses His Spirit to stir the hearts of his servants to action.
Drawing A Narrow Definition
“If everything is mission,” Stephen Neill famously said, “then nothing is mission.”
Except, for God’s people, everything really is mission.
I understand the sentiment. There are too many churches who repave their parking lots out of their “Missions” budgets and too few international missionaries making disciples among those who have not heard the gospel. But the answer to the problem of a huge number of Christians acting like bad missionaries is not to draw a more narrow definition.
The problem is one of discipleship. For too long now, churches have been content to make Almost Disciples. These are churched people who have responded in some way to the gospel, joined a church, and are now being fed information about God. An Almost Disciple is considered to be spiritually mature when his sin is less obvious and he’s taken on more responsibly at church. He tries to manage his family and his money well. He supports missions, ministries, and certain political issues. For many, this is Christianity in America.
“Real missionaries”– the ones who’ve left their homes and their families to join foreign cultures in order to be and make disciples of Jesus– resent “Almost Disciples” claims to be “missionaries.” Surely playing a round of golf with guys from work shouldn’t fall into the same category as sneaking into a hotel to teach persecuted new believers Jesus’ teaching about taking up one’s cross. Should it?
Mission isn’t defined by difficulty. It’s not determined by our sacrifice. Mission is God’s redemptive work among humanity, which brings glory to Him. As His called-out people, we are sent into all the world to be His ambassadors. This is our part on God’s mission. The specifics– the timing, the location, the position– these are up to God. He organizes His church on His mission.
It is unwise to try to draw a more narrow definition of mission, because, for God’s people, everything is mission. When we tell the church otherwise– that the “front lines” are over there and not here– we only encourage the sort of behavior we oppose. If you tell people they aren’t missionaries, don’t be surprised if they don’t act like missionaries.
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
Hurricane Irene recently hit the East Coast. It isn’t often that a storm like this would travel so far north, so residents from Georgia to New England hunkered down. Fortunately, there was time to prepare. In fact, there was lots of time. It wasn’t until five days after the storm was identified that it made landfall in the Bahamas, and two days until it hit U.S. soil. New York city was a ghost town for three days. There was time to stock up on food and drinking water. Time to board up windows and evacuate. Plenty of time. Maybe too much time.
Too much time to prepare can kill our readiness. We overthink things. We get distracted. We learn to live with the stress and quickly adjust to the anticipation as though it will be our new reality. Sometimes, the waiting ruins us.
I have a friend who is called to Haiti. She’s known for some time, now. After the earthquake there in early 2010, God gave her a clear sense that He wanted her to go. She immediately responded.
Right away, my friend joined a short-term medical trip and went. Over the course of those 10 days, God made it clear that yes, this is where He wanted her to live full-time. When she got home, she received news that her job at the hospital had been cut due to money shortages. She took that as another sign.
My friend started looking for opportunities in Haiti. An orphanage. A hospital. No doors were opened. She sold all of her “stuff” and moved in with friends to save on rent. She took EMT certification training and enrolled in French classes. She had prepared for what God had told her. That was over a year ago.
Since then, my friend has taken a job. She’s devoted her free time to learning about the Haitian people, making connections there, and preparing spiritually and mentally for the move. The hardest part, she says, is not becoming discouraged. The waiting can kill our preparedness.
Some of my missionary colleagues can relate to the waiting. I know people who’ve found themselves in a holding pattern for years before they every get to the field. A house that won’t sell, a child with special needs. Lack of funding. A visa. Medical clearance. Schooling. All of these things can keep an otherwise-ready missionary from doing what he’s been called to do.
Usually, they over-think: “Maybe I’m not ready.” “Is there sin in my life?” “Did I misunderstand God?” “Should I just forget the whole thing?” They feel foolish before their friends. “I thought you were moving to Haiti- did you change your mind?” Like Noah building a boat in the desert, preparation can seem pretty foolish to those around you.
If this describes your experience, don’t be discouraged! There is hope!
In my next few posts, I’d like to explore what to do when you’re called but haven’t yet been sent. What do you do in the meantime? How can you keep your focus, motivation, and sanity as you wait for the next step in what God has shown you to do? Don’t give up (you can’t, anyway. Try to run from it and God might send a big fish to bring you back)! For some, there is a clear reason for the wait. For others, the reasons never come to light. Either way, there is a great deal you can do to prepare and stay prepared to do what God has told you to do.
When I was a kid, TV and mail-order ads offered an option for C.O.D.– Collection (or “Cash”) on Delivery. In the past, one had to send in a check (or money order), and then wait for the product to be shipped. C.O.D. allowed the customer to call his order in, have it shipped without delay, and then pay for it upon receipt.
The Collection on Delivery option faded away years ago, mostly due to the widespread use of the credit card. Of course, companies had been losing lots of money in shipping to customers who, by the time the product arrived at their doorstep, either didn’t have the money or had changed their minds about the purchase altogether. The worst part of the C.O.D. was that it made mail carriers and delivery workers into collection agencies– something they weren’t designed to do.
The cost to follow Jesus is nothing less than everything. He makes this clear in Mark 8:34-35: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” But while Jesus requires everything of His followers, Paul clearly saw to it that as insofar as it depended on him, the message of the gospel should be free for all to hear: “What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.”
Are you charging people to hear the gospel?
By requiring people to enter your space, join your culture, translate your language, and overlook your hypocrisies in order to hear about the Savior, you’re charging them. Every cultural barrier is a C.O.D. for the recipient. A growing number of people know nothing about the contents of the message, but reject it for the cost of hearing it. Learning the language of the Christian subculture, opening their children up to indoctrination, sitting through hour-long sermons, identifying with hate-filled religious extremists. The price is too high.
It is the role of the missionary to reduce the cost to free.
Of course, once they taste and see that the Lord is good, people willingly exchange their lives for His righteousness. The transaction becomes a no-brainer; the cost seems like a steal. Our job is to lower the cost, to actively minimize the differences between us (followers of Jesus) and them (those who do not believe). Our role is to “pay the shipping” of gospel proclamation by translating the gospel into every tribe, language, subculture, and social enclave. We do this by making ourselves all things to all men that by all possible means we might save some. We do this by deliberately moving into redemptive relationships with those who don’t know Jesus.
You are a letter. Live sent.
While I’m on the subject of the Upstream Collective’s Jet Set Vision Trip to Prague an Budapest, I’d like to point something out: this is not more of the same. This trip is different.
I’ve already heard from a few workers on the field about the trip. As I mentioned in my last post, many are (justifiably) skeptical. A “Vision Trip?” they ask, “isn’t that just pandering to their consumerism? Aren’t you just bringing them over here to shop for their next mission trip?”
In short, my missionary friends, no. This trip is different.
Firstly, this is not a group of self-important, prima donna pastors on a promotional tour/vacation to Central Europe. The leaders on this trip are missional thinkers who are genuinely interested in leading their churches to be on mission abroad. I know many of you have put lots of time and effort into trying to “mobilize” churches to your field and work among your people group, but these leaders don’t need to be convinced of the importance of mission, or of their churches’ role at the center of it.
Secondly, when it comes to engaging unbelieving people with the gospel, they understand the need for incarnational, culturally-appropriate approaches. These guys aren’t going to come in with their “tried-and-true” methods and look for somewhere to implement them. You won’t get mimes in the mall or puppet shows in the park with these churches (unless that’s what God tells them to do!). They recognize that field workers have invaluable experience, cultural insight, and devotion. They don’t presume to know the best way to do ministry in your context. They’re here to learn.
Thirdly, these are leaders who take seriously their responsibility to lead their churches on mission. They’re not looking for opportunities that would most benefit their people, but they are looking for the Spirit’s guidance on their overseas involvement. The trip is not about shopping around for a partnership with the coolest missionary they can find, and they’re not impressed by all the insider jargon. They are truly looking for where God is working, and how their churches might fit in to that. A Jet Set vision trip isn’t a conversation between pastors and missionaries. It’s a conversation between God and their churches. Try not to get in the way.
Because the leaders on the vision trip are different from the usual missions tourists, they must be treated differently.
They want to part of a big-boy conversation. These are practitioners, not newbies. They want to talk about missiology, strategy, and methodology. They don’t need you to baby-sit them, and they know when they’re being “prayerwalked” because you don’t know what else to do with them. When they ask why you do or don’t do things a certain way, they’re not questioning your competence. They’re looking for a dialogue. (In case you’re not aware of this, dialogue is big among the missional set.) They will consider what their churches might have to offer in a given situation. These are not “volunteers,” they are partners and peers on God’s global mission.
That said, they will evaluate the ministries they encounter through the lens of scripture. As pastors and leaders, it’s their job to ask whether what we’re doing is God’s best. Missionary, if you can’t handle a bit of scrutiny, you need to check your pride. This is true accountability, and it’s a good thing. Would that all missionaries on the field had a high level of direct church supervision.
Finally, the Jet Set Vision Trips are not about the cities they visit. Those places are just the background, the classroom, for an intensive missiological discussion. The trip participants aren’t there to learn about how you’re being a missionary, they’re learning about how their churches can be missionaries. Practitioners like Michael Frost, Ed Stezer, and Daniel Montgomery are gifted communicators and vision-casters (and frankly, better than most of you at relating to, challenging, and inspiring these church leaders). Their participation in the trips keeps things from being about any one particular city, people group, or setting.
So the good news is that there are churches who “get it.” And not just a few. You just didn’t know about them because they’re not coming through your channels and programs. The bad news is that if you want to partner with these churches, you’re going to have to adjust the way you view their participation.
Missionaries, I hope you’re paying attention. These churches are the future of mission, and that is very good news indeed.