Thoughts On The Task

Every six months or so, I have to post my thoughts on “the missionary task.” In my opinion, this is the single most important topic that no one is talking about. In another attempt to incite some discussion, I’ve also posted this to the Church Planting Forum.

Below is an outline of my current thoughts on “the Task.” Please forgive my over-use of quotation marks.

Since my appointment and move to Western Europe, I’ve wrestled with the conventional understanding of what has come to be known as “the Missionary Task.” I’ve prayed about it, read about it, googled it, and blogged about it, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of discussion on the topic. I’m sure this is due to the fact that most of us (Christians, that is) already have the thing clearly sorted out in our heads.

I begin by admitting that my current perspective on the subject is likely wrong and would certainly be improved by some honest discussion with brothers and sisters who are obediently participating in the task. My question is simple: what is the nature of “the task?”

The question is important because most of us are heavily involved in ministries that have been planned around a particular understanding of our calling, goals, and purpose. “The Task” is the missiological idea that has led us to concepts such as the “10/40 Window” and “Frontier missions.” It’s led us to move our focus and resources from “reached” areas (despite the harvest) to “unreached” ones. It’s led us to rely heavily on statistics and models for our missions strategies. I’m not sure we’ve got it right. Here’s why:

-The Great Commission is a call to Go and make disciples. Does it necessarily have to be a “finishable” task? When I was a kid, my mom was always telling me to make my bed and pick up my room and eat my vegetables. Turns out she wanted me to do it every day. It would have been silly of me to say (as I’m sure I did), “Mom, I’m almost finished with the task you assigned me.”

-Some of you will want to pull out your Greek lexicons and start chanting, “ponta ta ethne” or something like that. I see the use of the term “all nations” (Matthew 24:14, 28:19-20, Luke 24:46-47) as a descriptive term, not a prescriptive one. Here’s a blog post about this.

One verse that also uses the “all nations/every nation” terminology is this one that tells about the Day of Pentecost:

“Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nationunder heaven.” -Acts 2:5

I find it odd that this one doesn’t usually figure into the discussion. Does it mean that there were literally Jews in all nations? Or is it saying “of the nations in which there were Jewish people…” If the former is true, the “task” was completed at Pentecost!

-To me, the concept of a “Final Frontier” assumes a static world. I blogged about this here. There are new people groups being born all the time that have their own unique languages and cultures.

-It also seems to assume that once a nation is “reached,” it will always remain so. I work in Western Europe where in many ways, our work is to reintroduce the Gospel to people who are inoculated against it.

-As far as I can tell, “the Task” we’re called to is nothing less (and nothing more!) than a step-by-step following of the Holy Spirit. But the IMB has scrapped that for something more practical. It’s like we read the instructions Jesus gave in Matthew 28:18-20, and we say, “Okay folks, you heard Him: All nations. Let’s get the job done!” I address the question “What’s it gonna take?” here.

-It seems to me that we can fulfill the task (obediently going as God leads), but we’re not really going to “complete” it. I’m okay with that, because I think it requires us to be more dependent on Him, instead of developing some game-plan to finish something that He never assigned. A task of world evangelization isn’t enough, in my opinion.

These are, roughly, my thoughts on the subject. I’ve always wanted someone to discuss these things with me, and to clarify my thinking where possible. What do you think?

29 thoughts on “Thoughts On The Task

  1. I am not sure which points to specifically address in your good post, so I’ll just jump in and say what I’ve got to say…

    To me the missionary task is one of primarily praying, modeling, teaching, training, encouraging and mentoring. Eph.4:11-12 is a key passage for me in understanding what our part is in “the task.”

    It may sound odd that “making disciples” of the nations is not included in that list. The reason is that I feel this is the task of the church, not just individual missionaries. If we leave the task of making disciples to missionary types and other professional church workers, we will never make an impact upon lostness and we have terribly limited Christ’s intent.

    As a missionary I could go out and win in a year’s time several people to start a new church. My time could be spent discipling them, and shepherding my little flock. Many of my fellow Ms understand that this is what they are to do.

    However, if I pray for, train, mentor, model how to do the church planting to 100 others over a year’s time, we might see 30-40 new churches planted. 30-40 x what I could do as an individual missionary simply by making a choice in where my energies are focused.

    That is why I like the term catalytic. I feel my role, “the missionary task” is to be catalytic. It is to be used by God to mobilize His church into the harvest fields. How do we do this?

    1) Praying the Lord of the Harvest for laborers.
    2) Training those that He sends.
    3) Modeling and mentoring for these laborers the making of disciples.
    4) Encouraging and holding the vision before the Body at every opportunity.

    I’ll stop here, but these are a few of my thoughts on the subject you post about today.

  2. i have never liked the word task. actually i don’t like the entire family of words associated with it. we are tasked by the task master to complete a task and that makes us the task force. all these words are so impersonal and stale in my opinion. but personal preference aside, the question remains, do they represent well what we are about as a people and organization?

    i think not and for these reasons. one, a task is akin to a chore. when we talk about sharing life with people as a “task”, it reinforces the idea that people are projects and that evangelism is something that can be checked off our list. it emphasizes the “do” mentality that is so prevalent in our subculture.

    this leads me to my second reason. we as a group are evaluation crazed. we have to evaluate our work, ourselves, our effectiveness etc. how else can we do that unless we have a clearly defined task? so we measure baptisms and church starts and then pat ourselves on the back and say that we are completing the task. who cares that maybe the fruits of personal and social change aren’t evident. questions of character, morality and personal integrity aren’t easily measured so we don’t include them in our task evaluation.

    thirdly, we love to be in control and think that missions is more about us than about god. we like to organize, implement, strategize, write master plans, etc. because in this way, we feel like we are DOING something. it is hard to rely on god, wait for his timing and be obedient in the details. we would rather draw out a flow chart and create a list of objectives because that makes us feel useful. being from a more reformed persuasion, i find this absurd. we can’t finish the task. we are not responsible for the salvation of entire people groups. salvation begins and ends in god. we are the medium he uses to communicate the gospel, but he always carries out his plans, at his own time and in his own way. somehow i get the impression that his ways look much different than our task as defined by the imb.

    anyway, there are my thoughts in a nutshell.

  3. I always enjoy reading your perspectives on missions. Concerning “the missionary’s task”: How does “the missionary’s task” differ from “the disciple’s task”? Thanks,
    - Alan

  4. Just for my own personal giggle, how many Regional Leadership Team people do you aggravate on a regular basis? Your questions are very good, but maybe a blight on those working on thesis papers or recently finished papers. Just for the record, I consider carefully your thoughts and questions. Thank you.

    South Asia Missionary

  5. The only “task” I know of is to glorify God. And, I’m sure grateful for the sun, the moon, the stars, the ocean, the animals, and so much more of His creation because they tend to do that a lot better than I do. I’m also glad that His plan won’t be thwarted despite Satan’s and our best efforts. Completion is in Christ alone; thus, the task was completed in His work at the cross and He announced it so.

    I think for us to participate in His work we must consistently live in a manner that is consistent with His nature and character as we are the living embodiment of that to this dying world. We will fail, and His grace will cover, but we must endeavor to continue to be the living sacrifice Jesus was every day.

    Now, having said all that… I would love to hear back from you and start putting some practical steps in place to all my ramblings. :)

  6. First, I was deeply offended that cafeaddict kept writing god without capitalizing it, but then I decided that I agreed with everything he said so I now choose to let him off the hook for being lazy with the shift key.
    Second, You are right about the ‘task’ terminology not describing what we are about but there is a good reason it came into being. The New Directions thing which I don’t think you are crazy about was a much needed shift in emphasis. As an organization- and indeed as a greater M community- we had become complacent with our self-imposed barriers. We let man made institutions tell us where to be and how to work instead of God and I am thankful for that shift.
    But more importantly, if we see the work that we do as having no end then it eventually has no point. With no point we lose focus and now if I spend half of my budget on my house and all my time fighting my culture then it doesn’t really matter. But if the ‘task’ is doable, finishable, then I had better get moving. We needed the kick in the pants in Western Church culture- some need more kicking.
    So, what am I saying? Yes, the word task is a poor word to describe a dynamic relationship with our King BUT, He is calling us to move, to work, to labor, to do. We experience Him not as we sit about watching tv or even going out to some lonely mountain to pray for forty days. We experience our King and reside in Him as we are about His mission that He has for us today. That is when we need to excercise faith. The parable of the Talants, the Sheep and the Goats, and the Ten Virgins all point to the fact that our King has chosen to give us an opportunity to know Him through working with Him, and this opportunity is finite.
    As for the To the Ends of the Earth thing I just believe that our King wants us to get to everyone. I think it is in the heart of the King to love all the nations and if we would be like Him we must love all the nations- and loving is doing something tangible.
    Obviously I have more to say but in as much as I have not communicated well what I have what good could come from more verbage?

  7. Guy,
    I’d be interested to hear why you to distinguish between “church tasks” and “missionary tasks?”

    Also, I think I understand what you’re saying about multiplying your influence; I’m just wondering if trying to figure out how to do so is something God wants us to concern ourselves with.

    cafeaddict,
    Sure, agree with me this time. If you do a better job of saying what I’m trying to say in a comment again, I will delete that comment!

    Alan,
    Is far as I can tell, the only difference between a “missionary” and a “disciple” is calling (or “God’s guidance,” or “the leading of the Holy Spirit”- you know what I mean). I think we’re all meant to be making disciples, and some of us are led to do it across cultural differences. To me, that’s “missions.”

    South Asia M,
    I’ve never got a negative response from my regional leadership for anything I’ve written on my blog. But now that I think about it, I’ve never got a positive one, either…

    Thanks for reading.

    Bryan,
    I agree- our disobedience won’t stop God from working. It will, however, likely disqualify us from participation in what He’s doing.

    Strider,
    Don’t be upset with cafeaddict. They might be writing from a country that outlaws capital letters…

    I’m intrigued by your statement:

    “…if we see the work that we do as having no end then it eventually has no point.”

    I think this is what the PR guys were thinking when they came up with the “Unfinished Task” marketing campaign. Unfortunately, that thinking also infected our missiology.

    When you say “Get to everyone,” do you mean “live as an incarnational witness among everyone?” or “reach them with the message?” I see a difference between our workers who follow different philosophies on this.

    Thanks for your thoughts, everyone!

  8. OK, so I knew I was not clear on some points. The comment about the Unfinished Task marketing campaign was well understood. Yes, it was a reaction to a problem. Yes, it can adversely affect our work if it distorts how we relate to our King.
    I would like to say more about the ‘get to everyone’ issue. I believe our King is all about this in the world today. The problem comes when we start talking about Church Vs. Individual Vs. Missionary. You just don’t find these divisions in the Word. Jesus commands us to go. Jesus says, “I will build my Church”. The problem is that we spend all our time church building and too little time preaching- or as you and I have both said, living- the Kingdom. If we obey and make disciples to walk in radical borderless, boundless faith then I believe that all people will have a chance to see the Kingdom in their own communities. I don’t stress about this. I take the team He has given me and work in the communities He leads me to. It is His responsibility to accomplish what He wants. It is my responsibility to be faithful. Ultimately, I think that this is not about strategy and methodology as much as it is about motivation and attitude.
    We are all counting on you as a wordsmith to ferret these things out.

  9. You ask, “why distinguish between “church tasks” and “missionary tasks?”

    The so called missionary task of making disciples of the nations is a church task, not exclusively a missionary task. As missionaries we are part of the Church and hence making disciples is part of our task as well. What I was trying to say is, making disciples of the nations, has been turned over to a segment of the church, missionaries, when in reality it is the church’s calling.

  10. When we say “church calling,” Guy, I’m afraid many “Christians” may feel let off the hook to let the “professional” church folk handle it. I really think it is a calling of every follower of Jesus. We are to do as He did, the greatest rabbi ever, and, as His students, follow in His footsteps. So, wouldn’t it be fair to say that we are all called to be missionaries/disciplemakers? What is the barrier to helping all regenerated souls see this? I mean, it’s the Spirit’s job, but how can we be facilitators/??

  11. Bryan,
    No, I understand what you’re saying. I’m not sure where the distinction comes from either, but I’ve seen it lead to a “leave it to the Pros” attitude, too.

    I get what Guy’s saying, though- that the Great Commission applies to all believers. Is that different from “missions?”

  12. stepchild,
    I live in a seminary environment, and I see the same thing: the true work is done by the professional ministers. Certainly the seminary doesn’t “teach” that, but it is built into the system. I agree that the only differece between a “missionary” and any other “disciple” is cultural context. A “missionary” is a disciple in a different cultural context from their “home” culture. However, every believer is “called” to live for Christ wherever they are living. I am trying to learn to live the task… not do the task – I hope that makes sense.
    - Alan

  13. Hey Stepchild, I have never plugged my blog before but here goes (yea, delete it if you want to). I am a storyteller and so I don’t communicate in comments too well. I just posted on my blog a story that shares how I feel about the subject at hand.
    talesfrommiddleearth.blogspot.com

  14. personally I like the terminology, To disciple disciplers rather than make disciples. it leaves it so God can do much of the teaching and it is not a long term project.

    –in explanation, make a disciple with the intention for him/her to be a discipler. when that person is on their feet, become a “mentor” rather than a teacher and let God teach.

    M H

    PS capitals aren’t illegal here

  15. …by subscribing to a missiology that makes “reaching unreached people groups” its goal, we take one step beyond what God has commanded in scripture.

    Is this indeed beyond what God has commanded? I Tim.2 speaks of God’s will as ALL MEN being saved and coming to the knowledge of the truth. To simply leave out people groups because few are responsive, does not seem to reflect God’s love for all peoples.

    I am not against going to the unreached, what bothers me is pulling out of where there is clear evidence that God is at work in redeeming men to himself (harvest fields.) Some justify this by saying this is the ongoing work of the planted church (not the missions task), but I am not so sure that is the time to be pulling out just when God begins to hear our prayers and opens the windows of Heaven!

  16. Now Guy and Stepchild we come back to what we are talking about. What is your identity? The Biblical word for M is apostle. We are uncomfortable with that word in our denomination unless we are talking about ancient history. An apostle has the authority to take the gospel past the next barrier. The barrier may be geographical or cultural or whatever. But the apostle is the ‘sent one’ who has the gifting, and above all the faith and determination to take the gospel on. To me this means that absolutely we need to be reaching the unreached. Not because it is more spiritual but because the King has raised up apostles who can do it- and if they can they should (see the talants parable). Harvest fields also have unique apostolic needs. Leadership, mentoring etc are all needed and the King has the right to send his people wherever He wants them to go. All the emphasis on the ‘unreached’ was an over reaction to our lack of faith that was keeping us from going where He was calling us to go. People groups as well was an important emphasis in that so many people were being needlessly left out. But now that we are ‘targeting’ so many people groups we are missing the people on the other side of the issue! I myself have passed up the chance to minister to families because they were not in ‘my people group’. That’s sick. In the end slogans and strategies only take us so far. They have been needed up until now in order to stay on track with what our King is doing in the world. But we look forward to being mature. We hope to see the day soon when we can discern His calling, know His voice, and obey Him in great faith.

  17. Guy,
    God’s will is that no one should perish. I get that. But does that necessarily give us the green light to come up with a strategy to “reach” every people group?

    If God wants to bring people from all over the world to Himself (and I believe that He does), why isn’t enough for us to go where we 1)Feel led, and 2) See Him working?

    Again, we’ve bought a missiology that elevates work among “unreached” people above work with whatever people God leads us to. You know what I mean, as the Board has all but withdrawn it’s support for your region in favor of “Frontier” areas.

    Strider,
    I agree that our current strategy is a reaction, but I’m also certain that we’ve strategized ourselves into a thinking that “engaging” a people group is automatically what God wants us to do.

    Let me put it this way: How do we know how God wants to “reach” the peoples of the world? Has He given us a road map, or have we mistaken a direction for a destination?

    I believe that the high value we place on “reaching” one people group over another is negatively affecting our understanding of both our task and our message. We will see the full effects of this when we 1) get serious about re-introducing the Gospel into formerly-”reached” areas, and 2) finally sit down and try to define what we mean by “reaching” people ( maybe then we’ll realize that the concept is not in the Bible.)

  18. I guess my contention is this: by subscribing to a missiology that makes “reaching unreached people groups” its goal, we take one step beyond what God has commanded in scripture.

    When we move from “making disciples” and “proclaiming the good news” (Biblical terms), to presuming to know God’s plan (reaching unreached people groups), we get ahead of the Holy Spirit.

    The extra-biblical term, “reaching people” is utterly useless for us, as it remains so poorly defined.

    I see a fundamental difference between going where God leads (where we see Him working) and assuming that we need to diversify our efforts among all the people groups with populations greater than some ambiguous number set by a behind-the-scenes strategist(s).

    Whether we “multiply our efforts” by “discipling disciplers” or teach by sharing life with the people around us, our task should be to obediently go where He leads, even if it means going to harvest areas or working among people who are statistically “reached.”

  19. Yeah, but here’s the thing. God doesn’t leave it up to us. He doesn’t depend on us to figure out how to best implement His plan. He leads us, specifically and individually. Sure, we ought to feel a general compassion for the lost, but to follow a specific calling, like Paul to the Macedonians, or Philip to the Ethiopian, or St. Patrick to the Irish, or Carey to the Indians, or whatever. If God calls you to preach the Gospel in Western Europe, it’s probably because He has a reason, one deeper and more complex and more intimate than a mere allocation of resources.

    I daresay most sb m’s are in the field because they felt called, not because they figured it was the best way to allocate the resource of their lives to complete some corporate action item.

  20. Publius,
    Most of our M’s on the field now were “strongly encouraged” to consider service in “higher priority” areas. Many of our people, and most of our constituency back home learned about missions- what it is and how it’s done-from the IMB. If you’re taught that “real” missions is “reaching unreached people groups,” you might not even consider going to Latin America, even if that’s where you saw God working.

    I’m not sure about your situation, but I’ve seen missionaries that were made to move for the sake of this sort of strategy. As an organization, we have put “reaching” certain people above the individual leading of the Holy Spirit.

    The Board doesn’t support work in areas that are considered to be “reached” as much as work among “unreached.” If 200 missionary units felt called to Western Europe, the Board (under its current strategy) would not send them all.

    I’m not being critical of the Board’s actions here, I’m challenging our missiology. My concern is not so much what we do, but how and why.

  21. Concerning thoughts about the “task”… I think it is both/and. It is relationship and task. The church is to set aside and send the called out ones for the work the Holy Spirt has prepared for them to do. The N.T. apostles were sent not only by the church, but also sent out by the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2-4). There must be a powerful relationship with God for something like that to occur.

    I think our problem lies with the SBC system for missions sending (not funding – that part is great). Our churches are forced to do their own thing, send their own missionaries, without IMB’s help when there is disagreement about where the Holy Spirit is calling someone. The decision has been taken from the local church and is made by an institution. Don’t misunderstand, the IMB is a great institution. But it should not have all of the say. Maybe part, but not all. So, we have this predicament… The Holy Spirit is calling me for a specific work in a certain place among a certain people… my church or network of churches is in agreement after much prayer and examination… but my denominational agency that we support to facilitate this very purpose says, no, sorry, the Holy Spirit would not send you there… but if you still sense God’s leading there, please go with another agency, someone else can facilitate that call, but we can’t. Nevermind that your church has sacrificed a lot of resources to support our agency so that we could facilitate this calling someday.

    I guess what this ramble is trying to say… we have a systemic problem with sending missionaries. It will not go away until we make a major adjustment and give more say to sending churches.

  22. We have all heard about “task-oriented” and “relationship-oriented” people. I think God uses both, and even people who defy being pigeon-holed, as well.

    I also think God calls and leads us in our obedience to His will. I think He does this both through our “left brain” and “right brain.”

    Biblically, I think there is some basis for strategic prioritization of the “task” He has given us. The following examples come to mind…

    1. Paul, in Romans 15.19-20, says: “So from Jerusalem all the way around to Ilyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”

    2. Acts 19.10 tells us, referencing the ministry of Paul in Ephesus, that: “This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.”

    3. There is no chapter and verse proof-text for this, but it is apparent that Paul had a strategy of systematically evangelizing all of the major urban centers in the Roman Empire.

    4. Jesus said in Luke 4.43: “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”

    5. Paul says in 1 Cor. 9.19: “I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.”

    6. According to the parable of the talents, we will one day be called to account regarding the stewardship we exercise over the resources with which God entrusts us.

    I see nothing wrong with godly men and women (IMB administration) who have been appointed by a group of churches (the SBC) making decisions (hopefully based on the leadership, both “left-brain” and “right-brain” of the Holy Spirit) on wise allocation and good stewardship of the resources God has entrusted us with. Are they infallible? No. Do I always agree with the decisions they make. No. But that doesn’t mean I disagree with the basic principle that I, as a missionary sent out by the SBC should in some way be accountable to the strategic supervision of a group of people like them in regards to decisions over how I do the ministry God has called me to do, and what resources should be allocated to me in my efforts to carry this out.

  23. David,

    I agree with you. I only wish we could close the gap between IMB and sending churches that are attempting to impact unevangelized people groups. The IMB is trying to do this through the Strategy Coordinator Church model and other types of partnerships. However, I think more radical steps should be taken to give stateside churches more say about deployment of their missionaries. I am not referring to day-to-day supervision, but speaking of general strategic direction.

    This would move us closer to a more biblical model of mission… the church has more ownership of sending out their missionaries and the agency facilitates. For too long we have been sent by the agency, when we should be sent by the church through the agency.

  24. David,
    Thanks for your thoughts. I considered some of the verses you shared when I started thinking through these things. I believe that Paul had a clear personal strategy, but he surely allowed for the Holy Spirit to lead him even when it was contrary to that strategy (as in Acts 16).

    I like the distinction you make between “relationship” and “task” oriented people. I’m just not sure that the task-oriented one should be the only ones who are talking about missiology.

    I also find it interesting that you use the term “evangelizing” instead of “reaching.” To me, the word evangelize makes sense on an individual level (much more than “reach”), but things get kind of fuzzy when we start talking about people groups. Maybe that’s why they the IMB has picked our guiding population and percentage numbers randomly…

  25. Stepchild -

    So now I have a question: using the analogy of a factory, you knew when you signed on with the Board that they were interested in producing Product X (churches). So you applied, they interviewed, and you were accepted. After new employee training, you were sent to a branch office and were told, “We want you to produce as many copies of Product X as possible. We don’t really care how you do it, but be sure they all match our 12-point quality assurance guidelines.”

    Maybe you started making Product X and were really good at it. But over the months you began questioning the need for this particular product. Perhaps you envisioned a better way to make Product X, or maybe a better version of Product X. Unfortunately, the bigwigs weren’t interested in your ideas and they sent you back to the branch office to continue producing their product.

    What do you do when you lose confidence in Product X? Do you begin to produce your own products but fudge the yearly report to say you’re producing more of Product X than you really are? Do you bend on any of the 12 point quality assurance points to create a product that is more in line with your thinking? Do you boycott the yearly reports and refuse to be part of a graph? Do you quit the company and go with your own ideas? Or do you succumb to the ideas and demands of the bigwigs and do your job without questioning and without comment?

  26. Anonymous,
    You’re killing me with such an analogy! Comparing missions with the corporate/consumer model is a big part of what got us our bad missiology in the first place!

    Still, I understand what you’re getting at. Every once in a while, someone asks me 1) why I signed up with the Board, knowing what it was all about, 2) How long I can, in good conscience, stay under their employ. I am always honest with my supervisors about what I do ()
    and don’t do), and I will stick around until either God calls me to something else, or the Board decided that there’s no longer room for me (or someone like me).

    In your analogy, it’s not the “product” I’m talking about here, nor the production process, not even the advertising. It’s the capitalism that undergirds the whole business model.

    Thanks for your comment.

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