More than Words

We spend our efforts trying to convince those around us of the existence of God, when we ought to be searching for effective ways to communicate our relationship to Him. This is only possible through relationship. We know that communication is more than words, and that’s why God’s design makes use of personal human interaction for the communication of the Good News.

The context of the gospel is -must be, personal relationships. God did not send the Word in the form of a tract or a circus-tent revival, because the means affects the message. God sent His son, Jesus, not to give the Good News, but to be the Good News. The essence of the message is not that people can go to heaven, or even that they can receive the free gift of forgiveness; it is that a relationship with God is possible through the person of Jesus. Our human relationships, though they are just shadowy reflections of the holy relationship, establish a framework for us to understand how God relates to us, His creatures. He is indeed a personal God, concerned with every aspect of our lives and actively involved in our personal histories. He knows us intimately, and He so desires that we would know Him, that He has provided the Way for it to be possible.

Though it doesn’t always make the most sense, God chooses to share His plan for redemption through people. Because they are selfish, disobedient, and proud, Humans really aren’t the most efficient or dependable media available. It would be easier for Him to reveal Himself through a massive international press conference, or through internet spam. But these impersonal means lack the key to effective communication of the gospel: relationship. Linguists have for centuries tried to translate certain abstract concepts from one culture into another that has no framework for understanding such a thought. Explaining the concept of patriotism to a person without a country, family to an orphan, or grace to a Mormon would all prove to be difficult- even impossible- apart from a personal interaction by which you could complete the definition through a demonstration of such things.

When Paul (Saul at the time) had an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus sent him to meet Ananias and be discipled. Jesus did the convincing and saving, but did not separate it from the context of relationship. So we see that God uses human relationships in the salvation process, as an illustration of His relationship with us. Despite the great value our societies place on independence, and individualism, Human interconnectedness is a beautiful thing. Human relationships, even the natural ones, have built-in accountability, teaching, fellowship, service, and love.

Discipleship vs. Evangelism

The fundamental problem with “unfinished Task” strategy is that it substitutes evangelism for the Great Commission idea of discipleship. Evangelism is not the same thing as Missions. In fact, there are many good and well-respected mission sending agencies that have built strategies and missiologies around a profound misunderstanding of the missionary task. Somewhere along the way, we mistook “reaching” people for making disciples. Disciple making requires acute cultural awareness and mature faith in Christ. In order to obediently share our faith with people of a culture different from our own, we must become experts in that culture. We must learn the language to understand the worldview, and only then will we be able to culturally translate the message of the good news. But this takes time and energy. Instead, we are content to pass out tracts and Jesus films, and remain ignorant of how culturally irrelevant we are. According to Jesus’ words in Matthew 28.18-20, our task is more than evangelization. It is to make disciples, and that requires us to abandon our human-centered strategies and walk in total dependence on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, going where He leads, in His timing.

Maybe it’s our affinity for convenience that has led us to settle for marketing-campaign dissemination of information over the long-term disciple-making relationships Jesus modeled with His disciples. But discipleship is not sharing information, public discourse, or debate. It has little to do with the materials we have available, and is not quick and easy. Discipleship is a relationship. In fact, the Good News is a relationship. The gospel itself is a relationship, and relationship is the context through which it must be shared.

Whatever Happened to “Experiencing God?”

It wasn’t long ago that Dr. Henry Blackaby was our “It” guy. His wildly popular book and Bible study giude Expereincing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God, was a huge seller for Lifeway, and the SBC was happy to push it as the answer for Sunday School, small groups, discipleship, youth groups, and anyone else willing to give 10 weeks and $19.95. Some people criticized the study’s theology, others were repelled by the Law and Order-esque niche market spinoffs, such as, Experiencing God Day by Day, Experiencing God: Eddie Bauer Edition, and E to the G: Fo’ Shizzle. Despite the commercialization of it all, I think the basic idea is a good one: we should find where God is working and join Him there.

We need to “go where God is working.” But what does that mean? In Western Europe, people are slow to come to know the Lord, and few churches have been planted. Is this an indication that we ought to leave? Pull out of France, and move everyone to China, where the good news is spreading like wildfire? Should we determine our calling by looking at the results? It is impossible to measure the extent to which God is working in the hearts and lives of Western Europeans. Only God knows that. Our measure of where God is working must be the calling that he has placed on our lives. Has God called me to Italy or Spain? Then my responsibility is to stay here until I hear otherwise from Him; as difficult as it might be, whether I see “results” or not. It is a dangerous thing to get ahead of God and assume we know what He’s doing and how He’s going to do it. It is a powerful thing to be behind God, following Him every step of the way as He uses us to take His message of Life to all the people in the world.

The whole “10/40 Window”/”Final Frontier” mentality has essentially led us to look around the world, find where God isn’t working, and start something for Him there. “There are no churches in Yokelville,” we reason, “so let’s send a career family and two ISCers.” Now I understand that it’s hard for us to even know if God is working unless we’re there to see it, but God is certainly working in those places to which He is calling us. Perhaps His direction is a better guide than statistics.

Calling

When we first started dialoguing with the IMB about becoming career missionaries, they really drove home the fact that we needed to be sure of our calling. We were asked to describe the occasion of our individual call to missions, and then we were to relay a time when that call was affirmed. We had to write out the experience. We had to answer questions about it. Some of us were asked to clarify the language of our call. To be hired by the Board, you have to be called. Why all the emphasis on calling?

Someone without a clear sense of calling won’t last on the field, they say. The Missionary in Residence shared about the importance of his call. “During those really tough times,” he said, “your call is all you have to hang on to.” The message is that the Board is going to great lengths to be sure you are called, so that they can support you and make it possible for you to follow it. Through all of this checking and double-checking of calls, it is never suggested that there might be some callings that fit in the Board’s strategy and others that don’t.

Although it is clear that the IMB goes through seasons of different emphasis, they have never said, “We’re a 10/40 window only Missions Sending Agency.” They continue to identify themselves as a global sending organization. “All the peoples of the world” they say. And so, knowing that my wife and I felt called to Western Europe, they hired us. Without giving us a heads up on the fact that we would not enjoy the Board’s fullest support, they sent us to Spain, apparently hoping that God would change our hearts and ask to be transferred to a “real” mission field like the China, “The Muslim World” or India.

I understand that an organization such as ours must have some corporate direction. As an agency, we need to be, at least at some level, unified in our strategy and vision. The IMB has a responsibility to send people that represent our convention’s churches. But our organization does not take a popular vote to decide its strategy. We rightfully allow our people in the field to be experts in their respective cultures and ministries. All the while, our massive promotional efforts work to educate Southern Baptists about missions and about the organization itself.

Workers

Part of what we do as missionaries is “mobilization,” educating people back home about what we do in order that God might by our stories call some to the field. But in an effort to recruit more workers, many have taken to using “lostness” statistics in order to guilt the willing into overseas service. I’ve often heard about how few missionaries there are, and how many more we need in order to “complete the task.” But whose job is it to call believers to missions? Have we changed the Lord’s directive in Matthew 9:37 from “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” to “Tell the Lord we’re sending out workers?” We mustn’t forget that while “The harvest is plentiful” and “the workers are few,” we are instructed to “ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

If there is a shortage of workers on the field, it can only be for one of two reasons. 1) The sin of those who have been called but refuse to go, or 2) God is not calling the masses of missionaries we think necessary to do His will. While I’m certain there are disobedient believers out there who are ignoring God’s call to international service, it seems very like our God to “thin out the army” so that He might do with a select few what we consider only to be possible with four times as many. (It sounds vaguely similar to Gideon’s story.) I also believe that as we dare to depend on human-centered strategies, God is allowing us to fail on our own terms, in order that we might be reminded of our total dependence on Him.

Besides the number of missionaries, we might also need to abandon our expectations for how God might use His workers. Another major problem we’re facing, according to my colleagues, is that while the number of “short-term” workers continues to climb, relatively few are signing on for career service. But such a shift in the modes of service reflects a generational change. Just a few years ago, the model for missions was a married couple and their five children moving to Zimbabwe and living in a mud hut until retirement or death, whichever came first. But today, the greater part of the world’s population lives in an urban setting, and a career for this generation of young professionals may only last five years. Young people today are a date book people rather than a checkbook people. They will sooner give a few years of their lives in service than give a few hundred dollars to a faceless corporation that has little accountability as to how it spends that money. We should not see this change as a threat, but as a new way of doing our work, allowing our strategy to be dictated by God’s calling on individual lives.

Matthew 24

Missiological passages of scripture that I’m working through:

Matthew 24

v.14 “…And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

This verse has probably been the greatest scriptural influence on the “Unfinished Task” missiology. In other posts, I’ve explained my opinion that verse 14 (as the rest of the context, and Mark 13:10) is meant to be descriptive as opposed to prescriptive. In other words, while there are many passages in which Jesus’ followers are commanded to go, preach, and make disciples, this isn’t one of them. Does it still have implications for missions? Of course. It describes God’s people obedienty doing what their master told them to do while he was away. But to develop a global missions strategy based on this passage seems like a stretch.

Another problem is this idea that Jesus can’t come back until all of the people groups have heard. What about the people groups who are now extinct and never heard the gospel? And how can “the task” be finished with the birth of new people groups all the time?

v.34 “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”

A difficult verse for literal translation. There are better treatments of this passage elsewhere. I include it here as context that further prevents me from using v.14 as missiological motivation. If we’re going to say that, based on v.14, Jesus isn’t coming back until we ‘finish the task, why not use this verse to say “Our generation won’t die until ‘the Task’ is complete?”

v.36 “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father…”

v.42 “…Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. “

These verses in this same chapter keep me from playing the guessing game of when the Son will return. They also reminds me that His retunr isn’t up to me, or us, or our missionary success. Obedience should be the motivation for missions; obedience to directive passages of scripture, such as Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15-18, and to the step-by-step guidance on the Holy Spirit.

Luke 10

Missiological passages of scripture that I’m working through:

Luke 10

This Passage is often used as a template or model for missions. The concept of the “Person of Peace” comes directly from Jesus’ commission of these 72 disciples. The passage is full of wisdom and truth for all believers on mission, but we need to remember that the context of this passage is a specific historical event (mission trip) with a beginning and end.

v.1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go…”

Unlike us, these disciples went ahead of Jesus. This verse stands in contrast to Matthew 28, where Jesus says, “I am with you always.” I also think it’s important that Jesus sent people to places where He was “about to go.” While I believe that God was in Western Europe before we arrived, we have certainly seen Him work in the lives of the people around us just after our arrival.

v.2 “He told them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’”

For my thoughts on this verse, see my post, Workers.

v.4 “Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.”

I’m not sure how this instruction to “travel light” applies to those of us who feel led to plant our lives in the mission field indefinately. Perhaps just that we shouldn’t ever get too comfortable on this earth?

I also wonder about the second half of this verse. It seems to contrary to the common wisdom that warns us to take every opportunity. What about the person I sit next to on the plane on my way to the field? It goes to stress the fact that we need to depend on the Holy Spirit even for guidance as to with whom we should share the gospel.

v.5-6 “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you.

In our experience, God has been faithful to bring us to the Person of Peace even though we haven’t gone hunting for him/her. I think this verse speaks to the relational context of the good news; a personal connection with an unbeliever is a good sign that God is at work.

v.7-9 “Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God is near you.’”

What constitutes a welcome? As I mentioned above, I think that friendship is the welcome we should be looking for.

v.10-11 “But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God is near.’”

When is it time to leave? In my posts Front Burner and Back Burner, I talk about the idea of relational ministry “dead ends,” and the desire of some to pursue especially (only?) relationships with those people who are responsive to the Good News. I believe that there are people who can drag us down and hinder our ministries, but I think these verses are talking about those times when we have no personal connection with the people to whom we are sent.

v.16 “He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”

I’ve heard lots of missionaries use this verse as an excuse for social rejection by a host culture. Usually, I want to say, “No, they aren’t rejecting you because they are rejecting the Gospel, they are rejecting you because you: a) are a proud, condescending, know-it-all stuck in American culture, b) not sharing the gospel, or c) a big dork.

v.22 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

That pesky predestination keeps coming up…

v.23-24 “Then he turned to his disciples and said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”

Please see my post, Passion.

Matthew 28

Missiological passages of scripture that I’m working through:

Matthew 28

v.18 “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

Many reasons have been given for why believers should participate in misisons. Some of them are true, some are not. Most of them use guilt as a motivator, but that’s another post. Perhaps you’ve heard a few of these:
“We’ve been blessed, so we need to be a blessing.”
“Jesus will not return until we finish the task.”
“There is such great lostness.”
“You may be the only Jesus they ever meet.”
For me, the only motivation for mission obedience. I think it’s important that here, as He gives His final instructions to His disciples, Jesus doesn’t say, “Since there is great need…” or “Because it all depends on you…” Instead, He asserts His
authority. By His authority, He sent the original disciples, and sent me.

v.19 “Therefore go and make disciples…”

It is often overlooked that Jesus gave his disciples some specific direction. As IMB representatives, we are all church planters. But the commission Jesus gives here is to make disciples. It seems clear enough, but why then, do we tend to focus on evangelism and church planting? I don’t mean to say that they are exclusive of one another, but Jesus didn’t say: “Therefore go and reach” anybody.

Another observation is that whil discipleship depends to a large extent on our obedience to God, He is the one who does the saving and the church planting. It’s good that we count things like baptisms and churches started, but let’s not measure our sucess by something God does in His timing. Those things are evidence not of our obedience, but of God working.

“of all nations,”

The greek scholars will tell you that “all nations” is translated from the greek word “ethnos.” Today, we use the term “people groups.” I like this understanding of the passage, but only in the sense that it helps us recognize that different groups have different cultural contexts. I don’t think Jesus’ use of “all” here means that we should catalogue and classify every people group in the world so that we can have well-defined “to do” list.

“baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”

It’s funny that there is a controversary amongst baptists concerning baptism. While I believe that baptism is an ordinance of the church, I don’t see biblical support for linking baptism to a local body of believers. The only biblical link between baptism and a local church are the cases of “oikos” church plants, where every member of a household is baptized upon their salvation.

v.20 “…and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

In church planting, we’ve long asked: “what is the minimum a person needs to know in order to grow in his/her faith?” Not because we want to get by with doing as little as possible, but because we often cross paths with nationals who, though they call themselves believers, aren’t even aware of some important doctrines. I think Jesus speaks to this here, essentially saying, “What they need to know is what I’ve commanded you, and that their part is obedience.” Oddly enough, I can’t seem to find where in the Bible Jesus commands us to abstain from alcohol…

“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this verse brings me back to the necessity of a right relationship with the Holy Spirit. I think Jesus ends with this as a reminder that because He goes with us, we should follow Him step-by-step to whatever He has for us. This, I think, is where we tend to go wrong; mistaking direction for destination, and getting “ahead” of God by making plans and asking Him to bless them. If He tells us to go to a place that is “reached,” we should go. If He leads us into physical danger, He is with us.

My favorite part about Him going with us is that He gives us the supernatural “upper hand.” When sharing our faith, He knows our audience; what they need, what they think. If we stay in tune with Him, we’ll be led by His strategy. It kind of takes the pressure off of us, don’t you think?

Missiology

Some examples of current evangelical missiologies:

From the Vision Statement, International Mission Board
“Our basic task is evangelism through proclamation, discipling, equipping and ministry that results in indigenous Baptist churches.”

The Lausanne Covenant
“A reduction of foreign missionaries and money in an evangelized country may sometimes be necessary to facilitate the national church’s growth in self-reliance and to release resources for unevangelized areas. Missionaries should flow ever more freely from and to all six continents in a spirit of humble service. The goal should be, by all available means and at the earliest possible time, that every person will have the opportunity to hear, understand, and receive the good news.”

John Macarthur, What’s Inside the Trojan Horse?
“Christian missionary work is often riddled with pragmatism and compromise, because too many in missions have evidently concluded that what gets results is more important than what God says.”

John Piper, Missions and the End of History
“And the aim of preaching this “gospel of the kingdom” is that the nations might know King Jesus and admire him and honor him and love him and trust him and follow him and make him shine in their affections. We have come to see that God is passionately committed to upholding and displaying his name – his reputation – in the world.
Over and over we read this in the Bible – that God does what he does “so that [his] name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Romans 9:17). The central command of missions is Isaiah 12:4, “Make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted.
God is passionately committed to his fame. This is his highest priority: that he be known and admired and trusted and enjoyed as an infinitely glorious King. This is the “good news of the kingdom.” This is the goal of missions. As Paul said in Romans 15:9, “that the nations might glorify God for his mercy.”

Jeff Lewis, God’s Heart for the Nations (.pdf)
“Start Pondering … What is God’s ultimate passion? Not His only passion, but what is His chief end? When everything is eliminated but one, what is His central motivation?”

Joshua Project,
“Our Purpose …to spread a passion for the supremacy of God among all unreached peoples.
Our Mission … to highlight the people groups of the world that have the least Christian presence in their midst and to encourage pioneer church-planting movements among every ethnic people group.
Our Rationale …”This gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations and then the end will come.” Matt 24:14″

Ralph Winter, U.S. Center for World Mission
“Missionaries do all kinds of good things, but the truly unique task of missions is not “winning more souls.” (We will always have the job of evangelism.) Neither is it social involvement. (Life and culture will always be under attack.) The unique task of missions is to establish a viable growing church movement among every tribe, tongue, people and nation on the earth. Until we are sure there is a strong church movement within every one of the people groups, our task is not finished.”

Luis Bush, International Director of the now-closed AD2000 & Beyond Movement
“More than 4,000 Christian leaders representing 186 countries have committed themselves in writing to the goal of a church for every people and the Gospel for every person by the year 2000. With that common goal in sight, they gathered in May of 1995 for the Global Consultation on World Evangelization (GCOWE ’95) in Seoul, Korea, which Ralph Winter – founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission – said may have been “the most strategic Christian gathering in history.”
It is apparent, then, that many Christian leaders from around the world believe “The Unfinished Task” can, indeed, be finished. They have committed themselves and their resources to the effort, joining hands to seek completion of the task in this century.”

Catalyst Ministries, UK
“He (Jesus) is eager to return but is having to wait until this task has been completed (Matthew 24:14). Jesus cannot return until the Great Commission has been completed. People from every tribe, language, people and nation have to be represented in God’s family (Revelation 5:9). “

Evangelist John R. Rice, on his website, The Gospel Truth
“The gospel has already been preached to all the world in early Christian times, if not in this generation. And if Jesus could not return until the gospel is preached to every tribe again, then His plain commands to watch, that He might come at any time, would seem out of place and misleading, if not actually dishonest.”