In Part One of this series we introduced three key facets of cultivating missions awareness in your local church:
- Knowing God’s heart and mission
- Knowing your own backyard
- Knowing the world and its needs
Let’s unpack each of them a bit further.
Knowing God’s Heart and Mission
When I first arrived as a sent one in East Africa, I immediately went mute. What I mean is, my language program required me to be silent for the first month of my studies. Ridiculous, right? How was I possibly going to speak the gospel fluently in another language if I wasn’t even allowed to open my mouth?!
It turned out, however, to be sheer brilliance. Sure, for one linguistically constipated month I was forced to listen to the strange sounds of my new language. But rather than becoming the blubbering foreigner-idiot that I so longed to be, I learned to hear the language correctly. Like an infant, I took in every tone and tenor, and magically at the end of the month I nearly burst with my first native-sounding words. On the other hand, for fellow students who ignored the first-month rule, many of them developed terrible habits they rarely overcame. (Just imagine the thickest Texas accent you’ve ever heard speaking Swahili with zero enunciation–“Uh-santy san-uh ya’ll!”)
It’s interesting that local churches with a passion for God’s mission can likewise skip over soaking in the truths about God’s heart and dive head-first into the action of local and global mission. Their sense of urgency has them saying yes to every ministry and program and person that has need. As Larry pointed out in Part Two, these churches soon find themselves bogged down with a million competing activities and little explanation as to why they’re overcommitted. Though it is noble and exciting, I dare say it is also missing a vision of God, one that will captivate, empower, and sustain church members.
Often at Upstream events I try to prove this point by asking church leaders what passages of Scripture come to mind when they hear the word “missions”. Then I ask if those passages are more about being (identity) or doing (practice). The answers have been unanimous every time: missions passages are about doing, about practice, about Christians getting off their butts and into the action of God’s kingdom. Inevitably, among the passages mentioned is Matthew 28:18-20. I then open up the Bible and read Matthew 28:18-20, giving abnormal emphasis to the beginning and end:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go…And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Yes, I tell them, there is certainly a call to action in this great passage, but it is worthless without the cosmos-changing truths of Jesus’ authority (v. 18) and presence (v. 20). It is in his authority we are sent to make disciples, and our obedience among the nations is only possible because he himself will be with us (see Joey Shaw’s All Authority: How the Authority of Christ Upholds the Great Commission). I have found that this is a markedly different way to spin the Great Commission among Christians today. Maybe it’s me being presumptuous, but I believe church leaders leave those events with a more encouraging vision of God and his mission.
What if our starting point (or starting-over point) when it comes to casting a vision for God’s mission through the local church was inviting God’s people not to impulsive, obligatory action, but to soak in their identity as sent ones–loved, empowered, led, authorized, accompanied, accepted. This strikes at the very essence of God’s mission, a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). Perhaps we would begin to see people not necessarily eager for activity, but ready to live into who they already are, wherever they already live (see Alan Briggs’ Staying is the New Going: Choosing to Love Where God Places You). When they grow accustomed to hearing God’s heart and mission, and how they uniquely fit into them, you will see a form of missions awareness that is categorically different.
Knowing Your Own Backyard
When I travel to consult with a church, I learn the most about its pastor and culture usually within the first ten minutes on the ride from the airport. It’s not the vehicle, the small talk, or the hotel he puts me up in. It’s how he describes his city. When a pastor naturally shows me that he really knows and loves his context, I know it’s going to be a good trip.
One of the basic postures of a really good missionary is that of a lifelong learner. Taking on such a posture really isn’t that profound in missions–learning a new language and culture leaves you no choice. But it is profound to meet a lifelong learner in an American church, where leaders assume they have already mastered the language and culture, and where churches expect leaders to be more like professors than students. In terms of Christian subculture, leaders who really know their own backyard are actually counter-cultural.
This is especially ironic in light of churches’ tendency to downplay American culture. Any talk of “loving the culture” is quickly ascribed as a violation of being “in the world, not of it” (a Christian subcultural term, not a direct quote from Scripture, by the way). The assumption goes, “How can we love our culture when it’s so full of sinful things? Aren’t we to be holy?” Indeed, there are grievous parts of our culture that we should neither participate in nor condone. But there are also countless aspects to love and celebrate, which, if we think about it, we already love and celebrate (restaurants, parks, art, stories, architecture, people, etc.).
David Mathis writes that we must stop communicating the sentiment, “Rats, we’re frustratingly stuck in this ole world, but let’s marshal our best energies to not be of it.” Instead, church leaders should embody and communicate Jesus’ missional message from John 17, that we “are not of this world, but sent into it.” That looks like leaders who constantly observe their context, enjoying the fruitful reflections of its Creator and grieving the rotten strongholds of the enemy. This then naturally informs how those leaders think, talk, preach, teach, strategize, lead–not to mention how they live. And it helps cultivate a subculture of devotion to the church’s community.
Knowing the World and Its Needs
I’m not trying to pick on pastors. I am one myself. But I have honestly met very few who really understand what God is doing around the world. It makes sense: their responsibilities are enormous and primarily rooted in one place among one people. We come to them for sound doctrine, not a world news bulletin. And yet, if pastors are meant to proclaim Christ and his unshakeable kingdom, how can they point to only part of that kingdom without also pointing to only part of the King?
I would argue that it is unacceptable for a church leader not to be progressively growing as a global Christian. That doesn’t mean they are constantly going on mission trips or retweeting David Platt. It means they understand that God’s mission for the church is to be a vehicle for the gospel to the world–the whole world. It means they are affected by the lostness they encounter beyond their zip code. It means, against all odds, they are becoming less threatened and more delighted with expressions of God’s kingdom outside their own small kingdom.
How can God bring about this kind of inside-out change in pastors and church leaders? Beyond confession, repentance, and a reapplication of the gospel, the mind can be renewed by being well-informed through:
- Informants: missionaries, internationals, and church members who are globally-minded and eager to share with you
- News: global-oriented apps and websites such as BBC and Al Jazeera (make one of them your homepage)
- Books: missions and cross-cultural literature that expand your reading list (for example, Kingdom Without Borders and The Kite Runner)
- Prayer: when global awareness and the heart of a Christian collide, the natural, most appropriate response is prayer (also consider utilizing Pray for the World to guide prayer)
If missions awareness develops to the point of genuine prayer by church leaders, then the church can’t help but be affected. Just like knowing their own backyard informs how they live and minister, the same will be true of them knowing the world and its needs. Stories will make their way into sermons. Consideration of missions opportunities will arrive in budget discussions and strategy meetings. Missionaries will make their way on stage.